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Looking from the Heart of Compassion

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

“He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me” — for those who brood on this, hostility isn’t stilled. “He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me” — for those who don’t brood on this, hostility is stilled.

Hatred does not cease through hatred at any time. Hatred ceases through love. This is an unending truth.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Verse 1-5, The Dhammapada.

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In a world where there seems to be so much division and hatred, and at a time of year when we celebrate the return of the light to the world it helps to look back 2,500 years and listen to the words of the Buddha. These verses from the Dhammapada are the earliest recorded teachings of the Buddha and as close to hearing him speak as we can get. In them he is concerned to give a direct message to the human heart and to emphasise the need for meditation practice to provide the antidote to the poisons of greed, hatred and ignorance that intoxicate all humans and cloud the clear light of compassion and wisdom with the shadow of hatred.

For the Buddha the essential ignorance was not seeing the truth that we are all one being, mistaken in thinking we are separate ego entities fighting each other for dominance. We are connected though the breath to the life of the planet, we are born form the earth and return to the earth and our life is sustained by the earth and the whole universe whilst in our physical form: we eat, drink and breathe and receive the heat of the sun to sustain us.  “We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff,” Carl Sagan famously stated in one episode of his 1980s series “Cosmos”. His statement sums up the fact that the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms in our bodies, as well as atoms of all other heavy elements, were created in previous generations of stars over 4.5 billion years ago. Because humans and every other animal as well as most of the matter on Earth contain these elements, we are literally made of star stuff.   We carry in us the elements born in long extinct stars.

Hence, we are not isolated individuals or groups opposed to one another but part of an interconnected and interdependent matrix of being: one entity manifesting in many forms. Thus to harm another is to harm oneself, for we are one. The Buddha suggested that more than this we are not our bodies or minds, that we are something that as unenlightened beings we cannot even conceive, but one might call it universal energy that has fractured and forgotten that it is One. The Buddha taught that our true nature, what we are even if we have forgotten it, is unborn, and uncreated. As such we can never loose our true nature, never be parted from it, and it can never be defiled.  But we can forget it, and act out of greed, hatred and ignorance – harming others and through this ourselves. All of the Buddhist traditions teach that this true nature is so close, closer than a blink of a moment away and when we wake up to our true nature once more, this insight gives rise to love, compassion and wisdom. As it is unborn there is nothing we can do to make it happen – it’s more like remembering a fact we know is there but can’t bring to mind, we need to relax and let it surface.  In this sense meditation is a sate of ultimate relaxation in order to open to remembering our forgotten true nature.

For this reason the Buddha placed compassion and non-violence at the heart of his teaching as it leads to peace of heart and mind. The term in the verse above translated as love is averena, which translates as non-hate: “hatred ceases through non-hate”. It thus has the broader sense than just love by meaning any non-hateful qualities that promote peace and understanding: reflection, mindfulness, compassion, calmness, patience. But using love gives a clear sense of what is intended and has a warmer emotional tone than saying non-hate.

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A friend of mine told me of an experience he had recently that illustrates this very well.  He was at a check out and thought the assistant was looking him up and down in a critical way, as she kept looking him over with what seemed an unfriendly expression. As he is very established in his meditation and reflection practice he noticed this, noticed an urge to judge her as being critical and to feel any angry response and desire to say or do something to retaliate. But instead by holding this all with awareness he came back to the reflection: “unsure, uncertain”. He did not know what she was thinking as he was not a mind reader and he did not know what was happening in her life, perhaps she was just having a bad day. In any case, whatever she was thinking did not actually relate to him as it was simply thoughts in her head about him, and as she did not know him other than these few moments of meeting so whatever she was thinking was not about him as a person but her impression of him and her way of seeing the world. Whenever we have difficult encounters with others whom we do not know – a stranger pushes past us or someone is rude to us – it’s so useful to remember that they are not seeing us objectively, they are seeing us in the drama of their world and we are just a sideshow there, what they are seeing is to do with their drama not us.

To return to our story of my friend at the check out.  His reading of what was happening was that she was thinking something critical about him, but he stayed with wishing her well, not knowing if his reading was correct, and if it were, reflecting that he did no know what was happening for her in her life and how she might be feeling right now, reflecting that she might be in need of compassion rather than anger if she was suffering in some way to give rise to her behaviour. So instead of scowling and being abrupt he was polite and smiled and spoke to her in a friendly way.  She then asked where he had got his coat as she wanted to get a relative one and was thinking this looked so good on my friend and that it would also suite her relative. She was not looking critically at all, it was her thinking face! And she was actually ready to give a compliment, which my friend would not have received if he had upset her!

Every day we have these small opportunities to spread a little peace and love in the world.  And when we get lost in our stories and react and get caught up in the drama, as soon as we settle we can use the Loving Kindness practice and mindfulness to come back to caring for ourself and the person we have found difficult and then find a skilful way of relating to them again with kindness or if needed an apology for our actions. This doesn’t make us wrong or mean we are failing in the practice, it’s simply part of coming back into balance – sometimes we loose this balance, but as soon as we spot this we can come back to being centred and act again out of love rather than anger.

If you are interested in reading more of the Dhammapada verses click here.

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