QUESTION: Can I ask you a question, because I got confused in a discussion about compassion. Some people were saying that you can generate compassion through meditating a lot. I said you can meditate a lot and not be compassionate because I have met people like this; compassion happens when you are brought outside yourself by something else, not by working hard on the cushion - which could be another ego project. Then they said, you have to work on yourself and be compassionate to yourself, so I said, compassion really means realising that there is no self rather than loving the self. Then they said that if self is empty, so are other selves, so who are we feeling compassion for? Then I couldn't think what to say.
DHARMAVIDYA: There is quite a lot in this question. Several questions, in fact.
Compassion is an English word that is generally used to translate the Sanskrit karuna. Compassion carries the implication of feeling (passion) with (com). It is closely related to sympathy. Karuna is almost the same thing, but is usually defined as a wish. It is the wish that others be relieved of their suffering. Karuna is, therefore, a mental activity which has an other as an object. Karuna is a mental activity that tends toward actions to relieve suffering. It is possible to generate karuna by meditation techniques. One can imaginatively establish an other in one's mind, discern their suffering, and then generate the strong wish that that suffering be mitigated or eliminated. One can further imagine doing something about it. This type of meditation will help to strengthen the karuna function in the mind. So on the question of cultivating compassion through meditation, if we take compassion to be karuna, then there are effective meditations for this purpose. This does not mean that all meditations will have this effect. Of course, behaviour, speech and mind are a closely tied system with constant feedback from one to another. If we generate mental karuna but do not act upon it, then the mental faculty will decay. This is because action in the world is also a powerful way of cultivating the mind. If my meditation is cultivating karuna at the same time that my actions are cultivating non-karuna, then actions are likely to win. In any case, if there is no visible fruit in action from a meditation, it is suspect how genuine the meditation was in the first place. As for meditating “a lot”, it is really quality that counts, not quantity. A moment of real change of heart is worth any number of hours fermenting on a cushion. That said, it takes some time to establish deep calm and if this can be done it provides an excellent foundation for any form of meditative cultivation. The basic message is that meditation and action should reinforce each other or they will neutralise one another.
The Matter of Self: The Sanskrit word being translated as self is atma. Atma really means the bit of God in the person and the idea that the Buddha is really trying to refute is that of predestination. The general structure of Indian religion is the idea that there is a bit of God in each of us that will inevitably find its way back eventually to the great divine source. Buddha is saying that there is nothing inevitable about it. The future will be generated from the conditions that are created. If we create bad conditions, there will be a bad future. Killing leads to more killing. Stealing leads to more stealing. Hatred leads to more hatred and so on. We are not all predestined to become enlightened, though we can do so. I read the anatma doctrine as giving us total responsibility within our existential situation.
Again, the bit of God is supposedly immortal whereas all the rest is ephemeral and contingent. Buddha is therefore not saying that we do not exist, but that what does exist is ephemeral and contingent. This effectively leads to a disaggregation of the self. My body is dependently originated. My emotions are dependently originated. And so on. The conditions for one are not identical to the conditions for the other. We are complex. So are others. As one thinks in this way, all these componants start to be seen as others: hence the crucial teaching, “Thou art not that”. They lose their self quality. When this genuinely happens, one becomes tranquil and objective, at the same time as experiencing a vast expansion in the arena of karuna. To care for another is not to care for one thing. It is to address oneself to the different currents that flow in that being and try to find a kindly response to at least one of them. This is why listening and observing is so important. A person is not just what presents on the surface. Compassion require penetrating wisdom. Similarly, one cares for one's body in the same way as one might care for any other body one had responsibility for. There is no "-ishness" about self any more. When people talk about loving the self, therefore, one needs to get clear what they mean. In a sense it is one of those phrases that gains energy from not quite making sense, or, at least, relying upon a shift in the meaing of words. Love, in Buddhism, is maitri. It is parallel to karuna. Maitri is a mental act with an other as object. It is the wish that the other be happy, prosperous, successful, etc. One can cultivate this through meditation and through action in just the same way as karuna. Now, for a person who has reached the stage where the self has disaggregated and become many others, it is perfectly possible to have maitri toward the skandhas (aggregates of self) without any element of selfishness being present. This is the basis of the Zen adages of the "When tired, sleep; when hungry, eat; when the bell goes, put on your robe," type. If one attempts this process the other way around, however, starting with self indulgence, the result will be adverse and self deception rather than wisdom will result. So we can say that “loving oneself”, or, at least, taking good (but not excessive) care of those things that others mistake for a self, is a natural consequence of spiritual cultivation, whereas indulging one's whims is something that blinds us to the very meaning of the good life. The idea that loving oneself is a pre-requisite for helping others is a fallacy.
Rider Also, from a Pureland perspective, we would say that the contingency of all the elements of our being ensures that we remain foolish beings, imperfect in many ways. Nonetheless, even in our foolish, imperfect state, we can live in the light of what really is immortal, which is the goodness, beauty and truth that is in the world, to which we give provisional names like tathata (suchness). We can conceive of a person who lives entirely congruent with suchness, a tathagatha, but we cannot actually be one. It is an inspiration, not an achieveable goal. We live in the light, but do not become the light. We should, therefore, guard against hubris. Nonetheless, if we live in that light, the consequences of our actions will, whether we know about them or not, tend to the good and this will benefit all beings. Now, according to Buddhism, our ephemeral and contingent being operates according to the principle of dependent origination. It is not random, but nor is it pre-determined. It is a case of freedom within parameters. If we have faith in the Buddha light (or, loosely, in goodness) then we will exercise that freedom consistently in a certain way, which is a way that benefits others. There are an infinite number of ways of doing so. If we are blind to that light, we will tend to slip into following old tracks and following selfish passions. There are only a few ways of doing this, so the selfish person effectively becomes less and less free as habit closes in around him. To live a liberated life will utilise all the affective and cognitive resources we can muster.