Here’s a recording of a guided meditation that I led in a Google+ Hangout, for people who are part of Wildmind’s Google+ community. The meditation is the Karuna Bhavana (Cultivating Compassion) in five stages, where we cultivate compassion for:
- A suffering person
- A “neutral person”
- A “difficult person
- All sentient beings.
We’re delighted to announce that Wildmind will be launching a new double CD of guided meditations on October 16, 2007.
The double CD is a guide to the four meditations known as the “Brahmaviharas” (Divine Abodes). These practices include the Development of Lovingkindness (Metta Bhavana), the Development of Compassion (Karuna Bhavana), the Development of Empathetic Joy (Mudita Bhavana), and the Development of Equanimity (Upekkha Bhavana). The meditations are led by Bodhipaksa.
To the best of our knowledge this is the first time that all four Brahmavihara meditations have appeared on CD.
The two CD set comes with a 12 page booklet with detailed instructions about the four practices.
The title, “The Heart’s Wisdom” refers to the insights we can gain through the practice of the Brahmavihara meditations, such as:
- You cannot choose what happens to you in life, but you can learn to choose how you respond emotionally to those events.
- All beings want to be happy and free from suffering
- We can cultivate loving-kindness for a person regardless of whether we like them, dislike them, or have no feelings towards them at all
- In sharing another’s suffering we find ourselves becoming more fulfilled
- Approached with mindfulness pain becomes a skilled teacher, pointing out with exquisite clarity what’s wrong with our approach to life
happiness arises from skillful thoughts, words, and actions
- The less we cling to our expectations, the happier we will be
- Equanimity is not indifference
The Brahmaviharas culminate in the Development of Equanimity, an insight meditation in which we contemplate the conditioned nature of happiness and suffering as we wish all beings well.
The meditations will be available as MP3 downloads in advance of the launch of the CD. The date of the launch will be announced in the blog.
There are many ways to develop metta (kindness, or lovingkindness), which is the desire that beings, ourselves included, be happy. Kindness arises from a basic realization that all beings want to be happy, and that their happiness and suffering are as real to them as our own happiness and suffering are to us. Recognizing those facts, and knowing that we ourselves want to be happy, we naturally wish happiness for others.
Kindness is inherent in us all, and in the meditation practice we’re strengthening what’s already there, not bringing something entirely new into being.
The most well-known way to cultivate metta is drop phrases into the mind that strengthen and develop our kindness. When I was taught the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) meditation practice, the phrases I was given were: “May all beings be well; may all beings be happy; may all beings be free from suffering.” (In the first four stages “all beings” is replaced with “I” or “you.”)
These are excellent phrases, although not everyone finds that they resonate and there’s no need to stick to those exact words. I’ve often encouraged people to experiment and to find phrases that are effective in evoking a sense of kindness and love. I’ve still tended, on the whole, to stick with those particular words, though. They’re deeply embedded in my mind, since I was taught them over 30 years ago and have repeated them probably hundreds of thousands of times.
But in recent years I’ve seen that there’s a good reason to change the phrases I use, and nowadays I tend to use, and teach, the metta phrases like this: “May all beings be well; may all beings be happy; may all beings find peace.”
The reason I stopped using “May all beings be free from suffering” and started using “May all beings find peace” is because I’ve been doing more exploration of a practice related to the metta bhavana: the karuna bhavana. Karuna is compassion, and the karuna bhavana is the meditation practice in which we cultivate compassion.
Metta (kindness) is the desire that beings be happy; karuna (compassion) is the desire that beings be free from suffering. The relationship between the two is simply that when we want beings to be happy and are aware that they suffer, we want their suffering to be removed. Kindness naturally turns into compassion whenever we become aware of suffering.
Now the problem with using the phrase “May all beings be free from suffering” in the metta bhavana practice is that it’s inherently a phrase that evokes compassion rather than kindness. Metta, strictly speaking, is about wishing happiness rather than removing suffering. When we use the phrase “May all beings be free from suffering” in the metta practice we’re actually cultivating both metta and compassion at the same time. This isn’t a huge problem, but it does muddy the distinction between metta and karuna. So purely from the standpoint of wanting to be clear in my teaching I prefer to avoid talking about wanting beings to be free from suffering as part of the metta practice.
Making this change to the phrases, when you start practicing the karuna bhavana practice you feel more of a shift in what you’re doing. It’s clearer that metta is kindness — wanting beings to be happy — and that compassion is another — wanting beings to be free from suffering so that they can be happy. In the karuna bhavana I use phrases like: “May all beings be free from suffering; May all beings have joy and ease.”
It’s a small shift, to reserve “May all beings be free from suffering” for the compassion meditation, but it’s one that I’ve find brings more of a sense of clarity to the practice.
Now as I’ve said, this isn’t a huge deal. Compassion is inherent in kindness. If we’re developing the desire that beings be well and happy then it’s natural to wish them freedom from suffering. And sometimes when you’re cultivating metta you’re going to be aware of someone’s suffering and compassion will naturally arise, since compassion is simply kindness meeting an awareness of suffering. I’m certainly not suggesting that you shouldn’t experience compassion during the metta bhavana practice! But there is a difference between metta and karuna, and I think it’s useful — without being too strict about it — to respect that difference.”
“May all beings be well; may all beings be happy; may all beings find peace.”
Yesterday I wrote about how mudita — joyful appreciation — can help us overcome our inherited tendency to pay more attention to the negative than to the positive.
This is important because in the karuna bhavana meditation (developing compassion) we’re inherently focusing on things that are, for want of a better word, “wrong” in life. We’re focusing on pain and suffering, and the difficult side of life, and this can feed in to our negativity bias. We can, in consciously cultivating compassion, end up over-emphasizing the suffering that’s in the world. Now there’s no shortage of suffering in the world, but it’s not all that there is to existence. In any given day, much goes right. Sure, bad things happen, but so do good things as well. People do things that hurt others, but actually many more people do things that help others.
Mudita — joyful appreciation — helps remind us of all this.
With mudita we’re focusing on the good and on the joy that comes from the good. We let the good in, and we bathe our minds in it.
The Path of Liberation puts it this way:
When one sees or hears that some person’s qualities are esteemed by others, and that he is at peace and is joyful, one thinks thus: “Sadhu! Sadhu! [Good! Good!] may he continue joyful for a long time!”
So it’s not just any happiness that we’re rejoicing in. When someone is gleeful because they’ve just pulled off a scam, this isn’t the kind of quality that meant here as being “esteemed by others.” It’s the happiness that comes from the development and practice of skillful qualities that’s meant.
In the practice of mudita bhavana we’re generally rejoicing in skillful qualities and in the peace and happiness that come from those qualities. And we do so in a structured way.
- We begin with wishing ourselves well. This can be a simple practice of self-metta, or it could have more of a quality of frankly acknowledging our positive qualities and rejoicing in them. (Although I know this is tricky — even painful — for many people.) We can wish something like, “May my good qualities increase”; may my happiness continue and increase.” The exact words don’t matter too much, and you can change them to something else that’s meaningful for you.
- We call to mind someone like the person just mentioned, whose qualities are esteemed by other and who has peace and joy. And we can repeat something like “May you continue to be skillful; may your happiness continue and increase.” This leads, all going well, to a greater sense of “emotional elevation” which is accompanied by stimulation of the vagal nerve, and a sense of spreading liquid warmth around the heart.
- We call to mind a “neutral person,” who is someone we don’t regard as a friend and who we also don’t have problems with; perhaps we just don’t really know them. And although we don’t know them, the gladness that we’ve developed in the first two stages can be transferred to this person. Everyone has positive qualities, so we can say “May you be skillful; may your happiness continue and increase.”
- And then we can do the same for someone we have difficulties with. It’s perhaps getting a little harder now, but if there’s some emotional momentum to our mudita then this can be carried over even into our thoughts and feelings about people we’re in conflict with. And even if there’s not much overt emotion happening, that’s fine: we can simply have the intention to wish this person well. This person has skillful qualities, like every other person. Or at least they have the capacity to develop skillful qualities. So once again we wish, “May you be skillful; may your happiness continue and increase.”
- And I’ve written before about the final stage of these “immeasurable” meditations; in fact this is the point at which they become “immeasurable” or “boundariless” (which is how I would translate “appamaññā”). This is where we simply imbue our awareness with appreciation and joyfulness. Our mind is a field of awareness, and now instead of relating with appreciation one-to-one, we simply have an appreciative mind that meets beings with the wish, “May you be skillful; may your happiness continue and increase.”
I’ll be writing about each of these stages in various ways over the next few weeks, but this should give you plenty to be getting on with in terms of developing appreciative joy.
“…an individual keeps pervading the first direction — as well as the second direction, the third, and the fourth — with an awareness imbued with compassion. Thus he keeps pervading above, below, and all around, everywhere and in every respect the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with compassion: abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.”
I want to focus on the phrase, of the Buddha’s, “an awareness imbued with compassion,” because I think it’s rather important.
Here’s something you can try in your meditation. When I’m teaching, often at the beginning of a period of practice I’ll suggest that people become aware of the light, and space, and sound around them. It’s the space that’s particularly important to notice. I encourage them to feel the space in front, behind, to the sides — even above and below.
We have this sense of space as one of our senses, although we tend to neglect it in favor of the big five. If the room you’re in was plunged into darkness so that you couldn’t see anything at all, you could still point to the door. You would still have a sense of how far it was to each of the walls around you.
It can feel like your mind is filling the space around you. Our awareness seems expansive.
And then I ask people to become aware — in addition — to the inner space of their experience, noticing the sensations that are arising in the body, noticing thoughts and feelings.
There can be a tendency at this point for our awareness to move completely inwards. We drop our awareness of the outer world, and focus exclusively on what’s inside. But interesting things happen when you remain aware of outer experience and inner experience simultaneously.
Usually this spacious, open awareness brings about a sense of quiet in the mind. Our thoughts slow down, and may stop altogether. There will inevitably be a tendency for the mind to move either outward into the world, or inward into our physical or mental experience, but if we can find a point of balance where we are equally aware of the other and inner poles of our experience, then the mind remains very still.
This state is very restful. There’s no need to go looking for our experience; it’s just coming to us. We can realize that our experience of the inner and outer worlds is there all the time, and that it’s “looking for our experience” that cuts us of from the totality of our experience. As soon as you focus on one thing, you exclude a thousand others. So we just rest, not focusing on anything in particular, letting our experience come to us. So this is deeply restful.
And if we can maintain that point of balance, then the sense of there being an inside and outside to our experience can begin to dissolve and, eventually, vanish altogether. On some level, there’s no self or other, but simply an expansive field of undivided awareness.
So this is something I often encourage people to do at the beginning of meditation, but this is also very useful to do when we’re moving into the final stage of the metta bhavana or karuna bhavana. Because at this point, when we imbue our mind with compassion, we’re also imbuing our world with compassion.
Basically, at this point, any being you happen to meet is going to be met with a compassionate awareness. You might “meet” these beings by hearing their voices, or their car engines, or even by hearing the sound of the airplanes they’re in. You might meet them just by knowing that they’re present, in the way that you know when your partner is in the next room even if they’re silent, or know that there are neighbors in the house next door. Or you may meet them in your mind. You might think of the people who have been in the practice; you’re simply receiving an awareness of them into your compassionate mind. Or you might think of people in some far-away country. And of course you are meeting yourself all the time, since both the inner is in your awareness as well as the outer; remember we just have one unified field of awareness. And all of these beings that you come across are met with compassion; you are aware of them as beings who want to be happy and to be free from suffering, and as beings who nevertheless suffer, and you wish that they be free from suffering.
So we have “an awareness imbued with compassion … abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.” There are no boundaries to the mind.
You can try this exercise of being aware of the inner and outer worlds simultaneously anytime. I’m doing it right now as I type this post. I do it as I’m walking or driving. In fact some of the Buddha’s instructions on walking meditation include an awareness of space: “Percipient of what is behind and in front, you should determine on walking back and forth.”
This expansive, open, non-self-focused awareness is very accessible. And then all we have to do is to imbue our awareness with compassion, and every being we encounter will be met with kindness and with a desire that they be free from suffering.
For most of the 25 days in which we focused on Metta Bhavana, I felt like I was swimming in joy. About two thirds or three quarters of my meditations were positively blissful, and in my daily life I felt cocooned by lovingkindness, as if I was inside a bubble of joy that stress was unable to penetrate.
Then, on day 26, I switched to the karuna bhavana (developing compassion) and that all ground to a halt. I didn’t find the practice actually depressing, but it did feel sober. There was a feeling of having a weight in the heart.
But after just over a week of karuna bhavana I started finding the joy starting to return to my meditations. I’m not the only one. One of the participants in 100 Days of Lovingkindness wrote about experiencing a rush of blissful energy (pīti) as he cultivated compassion for a “neutral person”:
What’s startlingly odd about this is that it was only a few days ago that in the same step merely looking at others’ lingering hurt utterly flattened me, filling me with a deep, yawning sorrow. Yet, this morning I was witnessing the arising of p?ti when looking at the same thing.
He was rather perplexed by this, and concerned that it might be the result of decreased compassion. After all, why feel pleasurable sensations when contemplating someone’s suffering?
But as I said to him at the time, “Interesting things happen when you turn toward your fears.” When you find you can’t contemplate others’ suffering without feeling sorrow (which an early Buddhist commentator called “failed compassion“) but keep on looking, then the fear and aversion can drop away. And this can be experienced as liberating — even blissfully liberating — and the tension that’s released in the body can be experienced as pleasurable energy.
In fact there can be many joyful experiences that arise while cultivating compassion. It can feel both serious and light at the same time. Last night I chose to focus on someone I know who has terminal cancer, and to wish her well, in the sense of wanting her, in her final months, to experience mindfulness and evenmindedness, and to know that she is loved and that her life has been meaningful. And there was a feeling of warmth and joy. I was aware of her condition and the physical and mental suffering she must be going through, but my sense of love for her was enough to be able to balance up the sober feelings that were arising in the heart.
And I had no sense that I needed to “fix” anything. I can’t make her better. I can’t save her. There’s no point thinking that she “shouldn’t” have cancer or that life is “unfair,” or that suffering shouldn’t exist. These things just happen. People get sick. People die. The important thing, it seemed, was just to see myself as a compassionate and supportive presence for her. With an acceptance of impermanence and no attachment to the idea of her getting better (although that would be welcome!) there was no sorrow.
In fact it’s possible to experience joyful, even blissful, states of jhāna in the karuna bhavana practice. The Buddha discussed this often, and that’s something I’ll write about tomorrow. So rest assured that if you find experiencing compassion to be pleasurable, this doesn’t mean something’s wrong. It doesn’t mean you’re lacking in compassion or empathy. So don’t try to block or suppress pleasure or joy. These experiences are perfectly normal; compassion can joyful.
PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.
Starting April 12, 2013, Wildmind began a project called 100 Days of Lovingkindness. The intention was to focus our attention on the important set of teachings and practices known as the “immeasurables” or “divine abidings,” which include:
- Metta Bhavana (developing kindness)
- Karuna Bhavana (developing compassion)
- Mudita Bhavana (developing gladness)
- Upekkha Bhavana (developing even-mindedness)
There are 25 days for each of these practices.
Below is a list, in chronological order) of all the posts for 100 Days of Lovingkindness, grouped by meditation practice.
- Bringing kindness to mind (Day 1)
- Taking kindness to heart (Day 2)
- Looking with a loving gaze (Day 3)
- Metta-blast to the past (Day 4)
- Embodying lovingkindness (Day 5)
- Effortless lovingkindness (Day 6)
- Struggling with a “lack of lovingkindness” (Day 7)
- Learning to see with the eyes of wholeness (Day 8)
- “For here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.” (Day 9)
- Smile your way to kindness (Day 10)
- Guardian angel meditation (Day 11)
- Kindfulness of breathing (Day 12)
- Cocooned in lovingkindness (Day 13)
- Speak kindly to yourself (Day 14)
- Loving your inner critic (Day 15)
- Love letters to strangers (Day 16)
- Metta on the go: 6 simple ways to take lovingkindness off the cushion (Day 17)
- When you have trouble being kind to yourself (Day 18)
- Dealing with guilt and shame (Day 19)
- Walking with love (Day 20)
- Lovingkindness: when the rubber hits the road (Day 21)
- The tender heart of lovingkindness (Day 22)
- The expansive mind of lovingkindness (Day 23)
- Breaking the boundaries (Day 24)
- Lovingkindness as a path to awakening (Day 25)
- Cultivating compassion (Day 26)
- Compassion is inherent to us all (Day 27)
- Sorrow is failed compassion (Day 28)
- Cultivating self-compassion (Day 29)
- Avoiding cruelty, the “far enemy” of compassion Day 30)
- What is suffering? (Day 31)
- Developing compassion: instructions from an ancient source, plus commentary (Day 32)
- How not to practice “idiot compassion” (Day 33)
- The Buddha (and his disciples) on compassion (Day 34)
- Self-compassion is not selfish (Day 35)
- Compassion and causing pain (Day 36)
- Guided compassion meditation (karuna bhavana)
- Why are we so hard on ourselves? (Day 38)
- Compassion can be joyful (Day 39)
- Compassion, bliss, and beyond (Day 40)
- The science of happiness and compassion (Day 41)
- Compassion is not superiority (Day 42)
- Bearing compassion in mind (Day 43)
- Seeing with the eyes of compassion (Day 44)
- Compassion as an antidote for our own suffering (Day 45)
- Living with a heart of tenderness (Day 46)
- Dealing with resentment (Day 47)
- Compassion and impermanence (Day 48)
- An awareness imbued with compassion (Day 49)
- There is no one to have compassion, no one to have compassion for (Day 50)
- Cultivating appreciative joy (Day 51)
- “To believe in the heroic makes heroes” Benjamin Disraeli
- The conscious evolution of appreciation (Day 53)
- “May good qualities and happiness continue and increase” (Day 54)
- There’s a crack in everything (Day 55)
- Seven qualities that science says make us happy (Day 56)
- Accepting compliments as a spiritual practice (Day 57)
- Flooding the body with gratitude (Day 58)
- Aversion: the far enemy of joyful appreciation (Day 59)
- The “near enemy” of mudita, or joyful appreciation (Day 60)
- Learning to see the good in others (Day 61)
- The power of gratitude (day 62)
- Appreciation is contagious (Day 63)
- The pursuit of happiness (Day 64)
- Mudita Bhavana (Joyful Appreciation) guided meditation, led by Bodhipaksa (Day 65)
- There’s more right with you than wrong with you (Day 66)
- The “magic ratio” of appreciation (Day 67)
- Looking deeper for the good qualities of others (Day 68)
- Innate purity versus original sin (Day 69)
- Having gratitude for our enemies (Day 70)
- An antidote to fear (Day 71)
- Look in the mirror. What do you see? (Day 72)
- Appreciation and impermanence (Day 73)
- “A person of integrity is grateful and thankful” — The Buddha (Day 74)
- Gratitude for the teachings and teachers (Day 75)
Bonus mudita meditation: Guided meditation on mudita (joyful appreciation)
Bonus mudita book review: The power of appreciative words: “Mishan’s Garden,” by James Vollbracht & Janet Brooke
- Cultivating equanimity or evenmindedness (upekkha) (Day 76)
- Guided Upekkha Bhavana (Cultivating Evenmindedness) (Day 77)
- Equanimity is love — even-minded love (Day 78)
- Even-mindedness and the two arrows (Day 79)
- “There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control.” Marcus Aurelius (Day 80)
- Equanimity’s “far enemies” (Day 81)
- The “near enemy” of even-minded love (Day 82)
- The still, spacious, and vibrant mind of equanimity (and how to get there) (Day 83)
- Words of equanimity; wordless equanimity (Day 84)
- Upekkha as an insight practice (Day 85)
- Acting with equanimity (Day 86)
- Radiating peace (Day 87)
- The big turn-around (Day 88)
- There’s nothing to hold onto; there’s nothing to do any holding on. (day 89)
- Five remembrances for deep peace (Day 90)
- “May all beings dwell in peace”: A guided meditation (Day 91)
- Looking into the heart’s depths (Day 92)
- Lay your burden down (Day 93)
- Where the currents of construing do not flow (Day 94)
- This is not me; this is not mine, I am not this (Day 95)
- The play of causes and conditions (Day 96)
- Going all the way… (Day 97)
- Cultivate only the path to peace
- Knowing the mind of the Buddha
- 100 days of lovingkindness (and compassion, and joyful appreciation, and loving with insight
So far I’ve just been advising people to do the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practice while bearing in mind the sufferings of others, but karuna bhavana (the development of compassion) is a practice in its own right. I thought I’d take an opportunity to geek out by looking at an early source of instruction on this practice.
The “Path of Liberation” (Vimuttimagga) by Upatissa is the oldest meditation manual that I know about. It was probably written in the 1st century, several hundred years after the Buddha’s death. It’s from India, but the text has only survived in Chinese translation.
The scriptures of the Pali canon, which contain records of the Buddha’s teachings, were written down a few hundred years earlier, but they don’t contain any coherent and structured guides to this meditation practice. The Buddha is recorded in those earlier scriptures as saying, for example, that we should cultivate lovingkindness and compassion, but there’s little detail as to how. For those of us familiar with the various stages (self, friend, neutral person, etc.) into which lovingkindness and compassion meditations are divided, there’s none of that to be found in the Buddha’s teachings.
That doesn’t mean that the forms we’ve learned are wrong. Maybe what we do was taught or practiced in the Buddha’s day, but wasn’t written down (or memorized in a formal way) for some reason. Or perhaps the techniques evolved and were improved upon, as generations of meditators continued to explore these practices. No one knows.
But I thought it would be interesting to show how the Upatissa presented the development of compassion, and to offer a little commentary.
Based on the Vimuttimagga, the Karuna Bhavana practice is as follows:
- We cultivate lovingkindness (or compassion) for ourselves.
- We cultivate compassion for someone we think of as suffering.
- We cultivate compassion for a neutral person.
- We cultivate compassion for a person we have difficulty with.
- We extend our compassion to all beings.
So there are five stages here. Now let’s look at what the Vimuttimagga says about developing compassion.
THE IMMEASURABLE THOUGHT OF COMPASSION
So the title is “The Immeasurable Thought of Compassion.” The four practices of which compassion is a part are collectively called the “immeasurables,” because the mind imbued with these qualities embraces all beings. It’s not that we literally feel love for each individual being, but that the mind itself is completely filled with lovingkindness, compassion, etc., and that any being we encounter or think of is met with kindness and compassion.
I don’t know what’s being translated as “thought” in the title above, but compassion is much more than a thought, although reflection is used to help us contact and develop our compassion. Compassion is more a volition or intention than either a thought or an emotion.
Q. What is compassion? What is the practising of it? What are its salient characteristic, function and manifestation? What are its benefits? What is the procedure?
A. As parents who on seeing the suffering of their dear and only child, compassionate it, saying, ” O, how it suffers!”, so one compassionates all beings. This is compassion. One dwells undisturbed in compassion — this is called the practising of it. The non-manifestation of non-advantage is its salient characteristic. Happiness is its function. Harmlessness is its manifestation. Its benefits are equal to those of loving-kindness.
This is a typical commentarial device — breaking a subject area down into manageable units in order to provide a comprehensive definition from various angles.
The definition of compassion is very interesting: “As parents who on seeing the suffering of their dear and only child, compassionate it, saying, ” O, how it suffers!”, so one compassionates all beings. This is compassion.” This is reminiscent of the teaching in the Buddha’s Metta Sutta:
Just as with her own life
A mother shields from hurt
Her own son, her only child,
Let all-embracing thoughts
For all beings be yours.
“Compassionate” here is an archaic verb meaning simply “to have compassion for.”
The illustration suggests that compassion is something very natural. We already have compassion for children and others close to us, and so what we need to do is to extend that to others.
“One dwells undisturbed in compassion — this is called the practising of it.” We just need to practice! It’s just like any other form of exercise — you develop the faculty by “dwelling” in it. By connecting with our innate wish that beings be free from suffering, and by dwelling upon that volition, it becomes a stronger part of our character. We can cultivate compassion in everyday life, of course, but our efforts will always be interrupted. In meditation our exercising of compassion is relatively “undisturbed,” giving us time to really “work out” our “compassion muscles.”
“The non-manifestation of non-advantage is its salient characteristic.” I think “non-manifestation simply means “not doing” and “non-advantage” means “hindering” or “blocking.” So the salient characteristic of compassion is that we don’t make life hard for others, which is what we tend to do a lot of the time, don’t we?
“Happiness is its function.” I rarely find the karuna bhavana practice, unlike metta bhavana, to be joyful! Perhaps what’s meant here is that we help others to be happy? Or maybe “happiness” is a poor translation of “non-suffering”? I’m really not sure. The “function” given in the Vimuttimagga for lovingkindness is “the thought of lovingkindness,” which isn’t terribly helpful. “Non-fear” is the function of mudita, or appreciative joy. I find it hard to see a pattern here. Buddhaghosa, five hundred years later, has “Its [i.e. compassion’s] function resides in not bearing others’ suffering.” By this he means that we don’t ignore other’s suffering. We don’t just go, “Suffering? Meh!” We are actually concerned to relieve suffering. Maybe something got lost in translation from Pali (or maybe it was Sanskrit — we don’t know the original language) to Chinese to English.
“Harmlessness is its manifestation.” This is much clearer. Harmlessness is more often called “non-harm” (ahimsa). When we’re compassionate we don’t intentionally cause harm, or even act in ways that obstruct others’ happiness.
What is the procedure ? The new yogin [meditator] enters into a place of solitude and sits down with mind collected and undisturbed. If he sees or hears of a person stricken with disease, or a person affected by decay, or a person who is full of greed, he considers thus: “That person is stricken with suffering. How will he escape suffering?”.
Now we get onto the details of practice.
You may notice that there’s no “self-compassion” stage! There’s not even a self-metta stage. We just plunge straight in. Or so it would seem. But Upatissa has just explained the lovingkindness practice, which is very detailed, and says at the end of the guidelines for practicing compassion that “the rest is as was fully taught above,” so I’m assuming he was just giving brief instructions here, and that self-metta (or self-compassion) is meant to be cultivated.
So when he says that the meditator sits “with mind collected and undisturbed,” I take it that this is a reference back to the lovingkindness instructions, where he presents a long list of things that the meditator should wish for at the start of the metta bhavana practice, including,
One should wish to be endowed with tranquillity, to be free from hatred, to be endowed with all merits and to gain good advantages. One should wish to gain a good reward, a good name, to gain confidence, to gain happiness, to be endowed with virtue, knowledge, liberality and wisdom. One should wish for happy sleep and happy awaking. One should wish to have no evil dreams.
So this is a very extended and detailed form of “May I be well; may I be happy” etc. Basically it’s self-metta, or even self-compassion.
Upatissa skips the “dear friend” stage, and this time I don’t think it’s because the practice instructions are abbreviated. My sense of Upatissa’s thinking in skipping the “friend” stage is that in the metta bhavana practice we have the friend as the person for whom we (should) naturally have metta, while the suffering person is someone for whom we (should) naturally feel compassion.
And again, if he sees or hears of a person of perverted mind and bound with the defilements, or a person entering into ignorance, or one, who, having done merit in the past does not now train himself, he considers thus: “That person is stricken with suffering; he will fare ill. How will he escape suffering?”.
Then we have the “suffering person” stage, where we call to mind someone who is obviously suffering, physically or mentally, and develop the thought for them: “That person is stricken with suffering. How will he escape suffering?”
So we’re wishing that this person be free from suffering. This includes all kinds of suffering, not just the more obvious things like sickness, bereavement, etc.
And again, if he sees or hears of a person who follows demeritorious doctrines and does not follow meritorious doctrines, or of a person who follows undesirable doctrines and does not follow desirable doctrines, he considers thus: “That person is stricken with suffering; he will fare ill. How will he escape suffering?”.
Wishing for the welfare of those who follow demeritorious doctrines would have been important for a monk, since by the time Upatissa was writing, Buddhism had splintered into many competing sects. And although Buddhists are (ahem!) not supposed to have ill will for those with differing views, it’s inevitable that this is going to happen.
Our equivalent would be those with different political views. It’s natural that we will feel threatened or angered by people having differing views, but we can combat this by contemplating how those views might lead to suffering. And if they don’t lead to suffering, why are we so bothered about them?
That yogin by these means and through these activities develops the thought of compassion for these persons and repeats it. Having by these means and through these activities developed the thought of compassion and repeated it, he makes his mind pliant, and capable of bearing the object. Thereafter he gradually develops (compassion) for an indifferent person and an enemy. The rest is as was fully taught above. Thus he fills the four directions.
So this is rather interesting. It’s by cultivating the volition of compassion for the four people who have been in the practice that we get to the point where the mind is “capable of bearing the object.” So the object is “all beings.” We’ve been practicing cultivating compassion for beings who are suffering and for whom we naturally would feel compassion, for those whose suffering we’d normally ignore, and for those whose suffering we might normally wish for! This gives the mind “pliancy” and allows us to meet any individual with a mind imbued with compassion.
PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.
Talking about cultivating or developing compassion can have the unfortunate side-effect of giving us the idea that compassion is something we don’t have, and need to create. Actually, the words cultivate and develop are meant to imply that we already have compassion as a natural attribute, and that what we need to do is to connect with this innate compassion and make it stronger. Really, karuna bhavana is “strengthening compassion.”
Compassion is part of our genetically inherited mental tool-kit. Other animals show compassion: primatologist Frans de Waal (one of my personal heroes) points out that chimpanzees take care of the sick and elderly, for example by bringing water to older females who are crippled by arthritis. The much less brainy capuchin monkey also shows empathy, and will help others when they have nothing directly to gain themselves. Even mice show the capacity for empathy.
Compassion is part of our evolutionary heritage. We may think of moral emotions as being handed down from on high (on a mountain-top, engraved on stone tablets) but actually they are to a large extent handed up from below, inscribed in our DNA.
We often take our compassion for granted, or ignore its whisperings. But it’s there all the time, even if we’re not aware of it.
Certainly, we often act in ways that are uncompassionate — even unkind or cruel (that harsh word, the judgmental thought, the unkind glare, cutting someone off in traffic) — but our uncompassionate instincts and our more compassionate ones coexist. The brain, and hence the self, is not unitary, but modular. The brain has not been designed from scratch as a smoothly functioning system, but has evolved piecemeal and is full of cooperating, competing, and antagonistic modules.
We therefore find ourselves morally divided. One part of us believes that showing dominance or anger is a valid means to find happiness or peace; if we’re aggressive, we hope, the troublesome object of our aggression will stay away from us and trouble us no more. But another part of us recognizes that conflict is painful and that compassion and kindness are more likely to lead to peace within our minds and in our world. In our everyday behavior we swing from one set of motivations to another.
So we need, sometimes, to let go of a whole layer of behavior and assumptions about how the world works, and how happiness is brought about in our lives, in order to connect with our innate compassion.
As with lovingkindness meditation, I have some simple reflections that help me reconnect with my innate ability to feel compassion.
As I’m beginning the practice of cultivating compassion, I recognize the truth of the following:
- I don’t want to suffer.
- But suffering is hard to avoid.
I drop these thoughts into the mind, and give them time to sink in. I give myself time to respond to the truth of these statements. I don’t have to make a response happen. I don’t have to think about these concepts — and in fact thinking about the concepts will get in the way os acknowledging their essential truthfulness. The response, like compassion itself, will come up from below.
These thoughts are deceptively simple. As you’re reading them, your eyes skimming the marks on this page, they may have no perceptible effect. The left brain understands the concepts, but perhaps isn’t touched by them. It’s just data. But let them sink in and the right brain can relate. These words reflect a fundamental reality of your life — something deep, primal, and moving. Be still, and let the words ripple through the space of the mind and see what happens. Listen.
Often the response is in the form of a mild heart ache, a tenderness in the center of the chest. This feeling of tender vulnerability is not something to avoid; it’s something to accept. It’s the stirring of compassion within the heart.
When I reflect in this way I recognize something I often overlook because it’s so obvious. Life is a difficult thing to do. We want happiness but keep stumbling into suffering instead. This being human is a hard thing.
And having let these thoughts drop into the heart, and having felt the heart’s response, I let the part of me that wishes me well speak. I strengthen the innate compassion that’s been revealed by dropping phrases into the mind, just as I do in lovingkindness practice.
There are other traditional phrases that you can use, like
- May I be free from hostility
- May I be free from affliction
- May I be free from suffering
- May I live happily.
The exactly wording of the phrases doesn’t matter too much, but they have to be meaningful for you, short enough to remember, and said with sincerity.
You can just use phrases like “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be free from suffering.” At the same time you are aware of the fact that you suffer. You don’t have to think about this or dwell upon it. You just have an awareness of this fact in the back of your mind. It’s like if you’re talking to a friend and you know they’re going away for a few weeks and this is the last time you’re going to see them for a while; you don’t need to keep saying to yourself “My friend is going away. My friend is going away.” Instead, you just get on with your conversation, and in the back of your mind you know the truth of the situation. And that truth affects everything you say. Similarly, having established that you don’t want to suffer, and yet to, everything you say to yourself is touched by that awareness. You get on with having a conversation with yourself — a conversation that turns the heart to kindness and compassion.
PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.
There are four related dimensions of lovingkindness, together called the “divine abidings,” or Brahmaviharas. These four are (1) lovingkindness itself, (2) compassion, (3) appreciation, and (4) even-minded love. I devoted the first quarter of our 100 Days to lovingkindness, and I’m going to write about compassion, the second of these practices, for the second quarter.
The meditation of cultivating compassion is called karuna bhavana. Karuna is compassion, and bhavana means “development” or “cultivation.”
Metta, or lovingkindness, is the desire of bringing that which is welfare and good to oneself and others. Compassion is the desire to remove suffering, especially from others.
The Vimuttimagga, a very early meditation manual dating from just a few centuries after the Buddha’s death, says:
As parents who on seeing the suffering of their dear and only child, feel compassion for it, saying, ” O, how it suffers!”, so one feels compassion for all beings. This is compassion.
The example of a suffering child is very down-to-earth, and it reminds us that compassion is a fundamental capacity that we have as human beings. We’d benefit from having more of it, so it’s to be cultivated.
The word “karuna” comes from a Sanskrit root meaning “to make or do” and so it has an active quality. You don’t just see your kid being sick and experience an emotion. You do something about it. Karuna has been termed “holy action.”
If you’ve done lovingkindness meditation then you’ll almost certainly have slipped into cultivating compassion as well, so this meditation won’t be particularly foreign to you. Compassion is simply what arises when a mind imbued with lovingkindness meets suffering. We want others to be happy; they are suffering; therefore we want them to be free from suffering, and to relieve their suffering if we can. And I’m sure it will have occurred to you, while you were cultivating lovingkindness, that a person you had in mind was suffering. Therefore, you’re already familiar with cultivating compassion.
In fact the phrases I was taught to use for cultivating lovingkindness were “May I (or you, or all beings) be well … happy … free from suffering.” These days I try to keep a bit more separation between the two practices, so I’m more inclined to say “May I (or you, or all beings) be well … happy … at ease.” But it’s not a big deal if the karuna bhavana and the metta bhavana melt into each other a little.
Compassion shouldn’t be a depressing experience. When it does seem depressing, it’s likely that what we’re doing is responding to suffering in an unhelpful way. The Visudhimagga, a meditation manual a few centuries more recent than the Vimuttimagga (I know, the similar names are confusing!), talks about compassion having a “near enemy.” The near enemy is a quality that can be confused with the genuine article. By way of comparison, if you’re selling Gucci purses your real competition is not purses sold in Target, but fake Gucci purses that devalue your brand. So the danger is that we cultivate the near enemy, thinking it’s compassion, when actually it isn’t. This near enemy is often described as “pity,” but the Visudhimagga has it as “grief.” Specifically it’s the grief that comes from “the household life.”
What does this mean? The Visuddhimagga makes it clear that the “grief of the household life” doesn’t have anything literally to do with households at all. What it refers to is the grief, or suffering, of not having what you want. How I interpret this is that we are aware of others’ suffering, and we do want that suffering to end, but the reason we want it to end is because it’s uncomfortable for us, not because it’s uncomfortable for them. You turn on the TV news, and there are scenes of disaster from around the globe. And it feels bad. Maybe you’ll give some money to the Red Cross to help, or maybe you’ll just feel bad. Maybe you’ll change the channel to avoid feeling bad. But this isn’t genuine compassion because you’re not really feeling for the other people. You’re attached to your normal range of mental states, and now you’ve lost those, because of these poor people. You’re feeling the loss of your own happiness and wellbeing. This can feel rather heavy, especially if you get into feeling guilty or despairing.
I used to see this a lot when I trained as a veterinary surgeon. People would come in with a beloved pet dog that had been in a car accident and needed an amputation. Now a dog can get around perfectly well on three legs, and often the dog would be standing there, just after its accident, with a mangled, bloodied leg and its tail wagging. Even then, having just experienced trauma, the animal was very resilient. But the owners would be so overcome by the trauma of having a mangled dog — their own trauma — that they’d insist on having it put down. They’d say they were putting the dog out of its misery, but actually they were putting the dog out of their own misery.
Compassion actually recognizes that others are suffering. I’m not saying it can’t be heavy, just that it’s not an response that makes you feel crushed and helpless. But as the Visuddhimagga says, compassion “fails when it produces sorrow.” Compassion may lead to an ache in the heart, but it’s not sorrowful.
The “far enemy” of compassion is cruelty, and I think cruelty is often a way of keeping “grief” at bay. If you deride those who are suffering, then you don’t have to admit to your own vulnerability.
In future posts I’ll say more about the practice specifically, but for now, just see if, in your lovingkindness practice, you can be a bit more aware of your own and others’ suffering.
PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.