One of the most important questions
we come to in spiritual practice is how to reconcile service and responsible
action with a meditative life based on nonattachment, letting go, and coming to
understand the ultimate emptiness of all conditioned things. Do the values that
lead us to actively give, serve, and care for one another differ from the
values that lead us deep within ourselves on a journey of liberation and
awakening? To consider this question, we must first learn to distinguish among
four qualities central to spiritual practice--love, compassion, sympathetic
joy, and equanimity--and what might be called their "near enemies."
Near enemies may seem to be very close to these qualities and may even be
mistaken for them, but they are not fundamentally alike.
The near enemy of love is attachment. Attachment
masquerades as love. It says, "I love this person as long as he or she
doesn't change. I'll love you if you'll love me back. I'll love that if it will
be the way I want it." This isn't love at all--it is attachment--and
attachment is very different from love. Love allows, honors, and appreciates;
attachment grasps, demands, needs, and aims to possess. Attachment offers love
only to certain people; it is exclusive. Love, in the sense that the Buddha
used the word metta is a universal, nondiscriminating feeling of caring and connectedness,
even toward those whom we may not approve of or like. We may not condone their
behavior, but we cultivate forgiveness. Love is a powerful tool that transforms
any situation. It is not passive acquiescence. As the Buddha said, "Hatred
never ceases through hatred.
Hatred only ceases through love." Love embraces all
beings without exception, and discards ill will.
One near enemy of compassion is pity. Instead of feeling
the openness of compassion, pity says, "Oh, that poor person is
suffering!" Pity sets up a separation between oneself and others, a sense
of distance and remoteness from the suffering of others that is affirming and
gratifying to the ego.
Compassion, on the other hand, recognizes the suffering of
another as a reflection of one's own pain: "I understand that; I suffer in
the same way.
It's a part of life." Compassion is shared suffering.
Another near enemy of compassion is grief. Compassion is
not grief. It is not an immersion in or identification with the suffering of
others that leads to an anguished reaction. Compassion is the tender readiness
of the heart to respond to one's own or another's pain without grief or
resentment or aversion. It is the wish to dissipate suffering. Compassion
embraces those experiencing sorrow, and eliminates cruelty from the mind.
The third quality, sympathetic joy, is the ability to feel
joy in the happiness of others. The near enemy of equanimity is unintelligent indifference
or callousness. We appear serene if we say, "I'm not attached. I don't
care what happens anyway because it's all transitory." We feel a certain
peaceful relief because we withdraw from experience and from the energies of
life. But true equanimity is not a withdrawal; it is a balanced engagement with
all aspects of life. It is opening to the whole of life with composure and with
balance of mind, seeing the nature of all things.
Equanimity embraces the loved and the unloved, the
agreeable and the disagreeable, and pleasure and pain; it eliminates clinging
Although everything is empty, we nevertheless honor the
reality of form. As Zen Master Dogen says: "Flowers fall with our
attachment, and weeds spring up with our aversion." Knowing deeply that
all will cage--that the world of conditioned phenomena is insubstantial, we are
fully present and in harmony with it.
Attachment, pity, comparison, and indifference are all
ways of backing away from life out of fear. Spirituality is not a removal or
escape from life.
It is seeing the word with a deeper vision that is not
self-centered, a vision that sees through dualistic views to the underlying interconnectedness
of all of life. It is the discovery of freedom in the very midst of our bodies
In the Eightfold Path
the Buddha talks about Right Thought or Right
Aspiration, which has three aspects. The first is
cultivating thoughts that are free from desire, discarding transitory
experience, and developing a sense of inner contentment. The second is
cultivating thoughts free from ill will and resentment; this means cultivating
thoughts of compassion and gentleness. The third is cultivating thoughts free
from cruelty; this means nourishing the forces of kindness and active love
within us. With a sense of Right Aspirations we can use all the different
situations we face as stepping stones, This is the thread that unites all the
moments of our lives. Each moment becomes an opportunity.
While in India,
I spoke with Vimala Thaker about the question of meditation and activity in the
world. Vimala had worked for many years in rural development and land
redistribution projects when, as a result of her longtime interest in
Krishnamurti's teachings, she began to teach meditation and devoted many years
to this. She has recently returned to development work and to helping the
hungry and homeless, teaching much less than she once had. I asked her why she
decided to go back to the type of work she had been doing years before. She
replied: "Sir, I am a lover of life, and as a lover of life, I cannot keep
out of any activity of life. If there are people who are hungry, for food, my
response its to help feed them. If there are people who are hungry for truth,
my response is to help them discover it. I make no distinction."
The Suds have a saying, "Praise Allah, and tie your
camel to the post."
Pray, but also make sure you do what is necessary in the
world. Meditate, but manifest your understanding of this spiritual experience.
Balance your realization of emptiness with a sense of compassion and
impeccability to guide your life.
Seeing emptiness means seeing that all of life is like a
bubble in a rushing stream, a play of light and shadow, a dream. It means
understanding that this tiny planet hangs in the immensity of space amidst
millions and billions of stars and galaxies, that all of human history, is like
one second compared to the billions of years of earth's history, and that it will
all be over very soon and no one is really going anywhere. This context helps
us to let go amidst the seeming seriousness of our problems, and to enter life
with a sense of lightness and ease. Impeccability means that we must realize
how precious life is, even though it is transient and ephemeral, and how each
of our actions and words affect all beings around us in a most profound way.
There is nothing inconsequential in this universe, and we need to respect this
fact personally and act responsibly in accordance with it.
One could make a very convincing case for simply devoting
oneself to meditation. Does the world need more medicine and energy and
buildings and food? Not really. There are enough resources for all of us. There
is starvation and poverty and disease because of ignorance, prejudice, and fear,
because we board materials and create wars over imaginary geographic boundaries
and act as if one group of people is truly different from another group
somewhere else on the planet. What the world needs is not more oil, but more
love and generosity, more kindness and understanding.
The most fundamental thing we can do to help this war-torn
and suffering world is to genuinely free ourselves from the greed and fear and
divisive views in our own minds, and then help others to do the same. Thus, a spiritual
life is not a privilege; it is a basic responsibility.
But there is also a convincing argument for devoting
oneself entirely to service in the world. I have only to mention the recent
horror of Cambodia, the
violence in Central America, the starvation in Africa--situations
in which the enormity of suffering is almost beyond comprehension In India alone,
350 million people live in such poverty that one day's work pays for only one
meal. I once met a man in Calcutta
who was sixty-four years old and pulled a rickshaw for a living. He had been
doing it for forty years and had ten people dependent on him for income. He had
gotten sick the year before for ten days; within a week money ran out and they
had nothing to eat. How can we possibly let this happen? Forty children
per-minute die from starvation while 25 million dollars per minute are spent on
arms. We must respond. We cannot hold back or look away. We have painful
dilemmas to face. Where should we put our energy? If we decide to meditate,
even choosing which type of meditation practice can be confusing.
The starting point is to look directly at suffering, both
the suffering in the world and the suffering in our own hearts and minds. This
is the beginning of the teaching of the Buddha. and the beginning of our own understanding of the problem of world peace. At this
moment on our planet. There are hundreds of millions of people who are starving
or malnourished. Hundreds of millions of people are so impoverished that they
have little or no shelter and clothing, or they are sick with diseases that we
know how to sure, but they cannot afford the medicine or do not have access to
For us to begin to look directly at the situation is not a
question of ceremony or of religion. We have a mandate to took in a very deep
way at the sorrow and suffering that exists now in our world, and to look at
our individual and collective relationship to it, to bear witness to it, to acknowledge
it instead of running away. The suffering is so great that we do not want to We
close our minds. We close our eyes and hearts.
Opening ourselves to all aspects of experience is what is
asked of us if we want to do something, if we want to make a change, if we want
to make a difference. We must look at the world honestly, unflinchingly, and directly,
and then look at ourselves and see that sorrow is not just out there, external,
but it is also within ourselves. It is our own fear, prejudice, hatred, desire,
neurosis, and anxiety. it is our own sorrow. We have to look at it and not run
away from it. In opening ourselves to suffering, we discover that we can
connect with and listen to our own hearts.
In the heart of each of us, a great potential exists for
realizing truth, for experiencing wholeness, for going beyond the shell of the
ego. The problem is that we become so busy and lost in our own thinking that we
lose our connection with our own true nature. If we look deeply, we discover that
the wholeness of our being comes to know and express itself both through
meditation and through sharing ourselves with others, and the course to take is
very clear and immediate. Whether it is an inner or an outer path, it has enormous
power to affect the world.
I spend most of my time teaching meditation. A few years
ago, when many "thousands of Cambodian people were fleeing the violence in
their homeland only to face starvation and disease in refugee camps in
Thailand, something in me said, "I've got to go there," and so I
went. I knew the people and a few of the local languages. After being there for
a short time, trying to assist, I returned to this country to guide intensive
I did not deliberate much at the time about whether or not
I should go to work in the refugee camps. I felt that it had to be done, and I
went and did it. It was immediate and personal.
The spiritual path does not present us with a stylized pat
formula for everyone to follow. It not a matter of imitation. We cannot be
Mother Theresa or Gandhi or the Buddha. We have to be ourselves. We must
discover and connect with our unique expression of the truth. We must learn to listen
to and trust ourselves.
There are two great forces in the world. One is the force
People who are not afraid to kill govern nations, make
wars, and control much of the activity of our world. There is great strength in
not being afraid to kill. The other source of strength in the world--the real strength--is
in people who are not afraid to die. These are people who have touched the very
source of their being, who have looked into themselves in such a deep way that
they understand and acknowledge and accept death, and in a way, have already
died. They have seen beyond the separateness of the ego's shell, and they bring
to life the fearlessness and the caring born of love and truth. This is a force
that can meet the force of someone who is not afraid to kill.
This is the power Gandhi called satygraha, the force of truth,
and the force that he demonstrated in his own life. When India was partitioned, millions of
people became refugees--Muslims and Hindus moved from one country to another.
There was horrible violence and rioting. Tens of thousands of troops were sent to
West Pakistan to try to quell the terrible violence, while Gandhi went to what
was then East Pakistan. He walked from village
to village asking people to stop the bloodshed. Then he fasted. He said he
would take no more food until the violence and insanity stopped, even if it
meant his own death. And the riots stopped. They stopped because of the power
of love, because Gandhi cared about something--call it truth or life or
whatever you wish--it was something much greater than Gandhi the person. This
is the nature of our spiritual practice, whatever form it may' take. Living
aligned with truth is more important than either living or dying. This
understanding is the source of incredible power and energy, and must be
manifested through love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
One of the exquisite experiences of my travels in India was going to the holy city of Benares by the Ganges
River. Along the river
bank are ghats where people bathe as a purification, and there are also ghats
where people bring corpses to be cremated. I had heard about the burning ghats
for years and had always thought that being there would be a heavy experience.
I was rowed down river in a little boat, and up to the ghats where there were twelve
fires going. Every half-hour or so, a new body would be carried down to the
fires as people chanted "Rama Nama Satya Hei," the only truth is the name
of God. I was surprised. It was not dreadful at all; it was peaceful, quiet,
and very sane. There was as a recognition that life and death are part of the
same process and therefore death need not be feared.
There is a deep joy that comes when we stop denying the
painful aspects of life, and instead allow our hearts to open to and accept the
full range of our experience: life and death, pleasure and pain, darkness and
light. Even in the face of the tremendous suffering in the world, there can be
this joy, which comes not from rejecting pain and seeking pleasure, but rather from
our ability to meditate and open ourselves to the truth. Spiritual practice
begins by allowing ourselves to face our own sadness, fear, anxiety,
desperation--to die to the ego's ideas about how things should be, and to love
and accept the truth of things as they are.
With this as our foundation, we can see the source of
suffering in our lives and in the world around us. We can see the factors of
greed, hatred, and ignorance that produce a sense of separation. If we look
directly, we can see the end of suffering because its end is an acknowledgment
and a clear understanding of the oneness of light and dark, up and down, sorrow
and joy. We can see all these things without attachment and without separation.
We must look at how we have created and enforced
separation. How have we made this a world of "I want this; I want to become
that; this will make me safe; this will make me powerful?" Race,
nationality, age, and religion all enforce separation. Look into yourself and
see what is "us" and what is "them" for you. When there is
a sense of "us," then there is a sense of "other." When we
can give this up, then we can give up the idea that strength comes from having
more than others, or from having the power to kill others. When we give this
up, we give up the stereotype of love as a weakness.
There is a story from the Zen tradition about an old monk
who practiced very hard meditation for many years. He had a good mind and became
very quiet, but never really touched the end of "I" and
"others" in himself. He never came to the source of complete
stillness or peace out of which transformation comes, So he went to the Zen
Master and said, "May I please have permission to go off and practice in
the mountains? I have worked for years as a monk and there is nothing else I
want but to understand this: the true nature of myself, of this
world." And the master, knowing that he was ripe, gave him permission to
He left the monastery, took his bowl and few possessions,
and walked through various towns toward the mountains. He had left the last
village behind and was going up a little trail when there appeared before him, coming
down the trail, an old man carrying a great big bundle on his back.
This old man was actually the Bodhisattva, Manjusri, who
is said to appear to people at the moment that they are ripe for awakening, and
is depicted carrying the sword of discriminating wisdom that cuts through all attachment,
all illusion, and separateness. The monk looked at the old man, and the old man
said, "Say, friend, where are you going?" The monk told his story.
"I've practiced for all these years and all I want now is to touch that
center point, to know that which is essentially true. Tell me, old man, do you
know anything of this enlightenment?" The old man simply let go of the
bundle; it dropped to the ground, and the monk was enlightened.
That is our aspiration and our task --to put it all down,
to drop all of our clinging, condemning, identifying, our opinions and our
sense of I, me, mine. The newly enlightened monk looked at the old man again.
He said, "So now what?" The old man reached down, picked up the
bundle again and walked off to town.
We want to put it all down, which means also to
acknowledge where it begins. To see sorrow, to see suffering, to see pain, to
see that we are all in it together, to see birth and death. If we are afraid of
death and afraid of suffering, and we do not want to look, then we cannot put
it down. We will push it away here and will grab it again there. When we have seen
the nature of life directly, we can put it down. Once we put it down, then with
understanding and compassion we can pick it up again. Then we can act
effectively, even dramatically, without bitterness or self-righteousness. We
can be motivated by a genuine sense of caring and of forgiveness, and a
determination to live our lives well.
A number of years ago I attended a conference at which Mad
Bear, an Iroquois medicine man spoke. He said, "For my presentation I'd
like us to begin by going outside," and we all went out. He led us to an
open field and then asked us to stand silently in a circle. We stood for a
while in silence under a wide open sky, surrounded by fields of grain
stretching to the horizon. Then Mad Bear began to speak offering a prayer of
He began by thanking the earthworms for aerating the soil
so that plants can grow. He thanked the grasses that cover the earth for
keeping the dust from blowing, for cushioning out steps, and for showing our
eyes the greenness and beauty of their life. He thanked the wind for bringing
rain, for cleaning the air, for giving us the life-breath that connects us with
all beings. He spoke in this way for nearly an hour, and as we listened we felt
the wind on our faces, and the earth beneath our feet, and we saw the grass and
clouds, all with a sense of connectedness, gratitude, and love.
This is the spirit of our practice of mindfulness.
Love--not the near enemy of attachment, but something much deeper--infuses our
awareness enables us to open to and accept the truth of each moment, to feel
our intimate connectedness with all things, and to see the wholeness of life.
Whether we are sitting in meditation or sitting somewhere in protest, that is
our spiritual practice in every moment.
ReVision, Vol. 16 No.
2 Fall.1993, Pp.83-86