I think most people could tell you, after having lived some years on this earth that what really lasts in memory is not so much what people do, but the goodwill they share with us. When we’re treated with kindness, it stays with us. It can nurture and strengthen us for a long time. Deprived of love, we wither, or become twisted. Cared for, we are healthy and we thrive. After a while we know that love is essential for living.
The last few weeks I’ve been thinking that compassion is the most important thing in the world, and I’d like to propose, for your consideration, that it has the greatest natural, intrinsic worth. Here’s what I’ve thought:
First of all, how do we measure importance? Clearly, there’s a huge range of what people believe to be important- baseball, money, prestige, family, food, study, travel, pets, very clean dishes… make your own list…
I think we’d all agree that even our own ideas about what’s important changes from year to year, or even from day to day, and hour to hour. I had to ask, then, what is it we all trying to define here, when we say something is important, that it is worth pursuing, or avoiding, being careful about, or holding on to? I think it has to do with happiness and unhappiness.
When we call something important, it means we believe, rightly or wrongly, that it has the potential to give us happiness, or it could be important to us also because of its potential to cause us unhappiness.
Think of a person’s attitude towards a tossed away gum wrapper- not of much value, unimportant- and then think of a mother seeing her child walking toward some traffic, and reacting to that as something important, as something with the potential to cause a lot of unhappiness.
So, as a working idea, I’ve thought that what we are calling importance is our idea of the potential something has for it to bring us happiness or to avoid unhappiness. Right ideas, in this regard, are more valuable, naturally, than wrong ideas, just like an accurate map is more valuable than one with wrong information. By nature, good advice, is of more value to us than wrong, or misleading ideas.
From here, at least, I can see why, in the scheme of things, I give compassion the highest importance. Why do people study, or seek knowledge?, or build schools, or hospitals, or water treatment facilities? It’s at least in part because these are seen, rightly, as things that can bring happiness to others, and prevent harm.
Compassion is a motivating force for good. It gives birth to seeking wisdom, and to wisdom, understanding something rightly, and to works.
As the attitude responding to suffering, and the actions that follow, compassion opens the way for every enjoyment. All the enjoyments of the world are blocked for a time when a person suffers in some way. Removing that suffering makes available all the treasures this life has to offer. For this reason it naturally has the greatest worth.
One way I illustrate this to my own mind is that I imagine a party- a group of loving friends, where everyone is having a good time, eating, drinking, dancing, telling stories, the usual thing, when it happens that, in a moment, there is some danger to one of them- one of them has a problem. Maybe they have fallen into a pool and can’t swim, or they need a doctor. Right away, the attention of everyone there would shift to that person.
This is a group, mind you, where everyone is capable of seeing and hearing, not themselves bound up, drunk, or distracted. Naturally, the needs of that one person in trouble become the most important thing. This is just the common wisdom we all recognize.
Compassion is instinctively praised, respected, and honored everywhere, and in all times. Instead of being swept along with so many others, valuing meaningless things, I’d like to propose, here is a true scale of values. See for yourself.
In my opinion, nothing else compares- not generosity, or ability, or wealth, companionship, longevity, pleasures, all of these we can give, but without kindness, understanding, and loving compassion, they are at best temporary.
Even a poor person, without resources to speak of, without much strength or wit or charm, can still, in his room one night, have compassionate thoughts for the pain someone else experiences, or could experience, and that person, despite their limitations, can still get up the next morning and change the world for the better. Even if it’s just one person’s life they help, it can still be a very great thing.
Anyone who has been in need and received someone’s kindness knows how important this is, that someone reached out to us, or gave us their support. Nothing else compares in life. Everything else, compared to having that need met, moves far to the background, leaving only this shining truth, and gratitude.
No condemnation – ‘Saving All Beings…’
From what I can tell, there is no condemnation in Buddhism, no ‘un-pardonable sin’, especially in Mahayana Buddhism. As I understand it, there is no fixed good and evil. In this paradigm, instead, human problems are talked about in terms of ignorance and wisdom- the cause of the sufferings of the world being ignorance, and their solution being the development of wisdom. This is a much more workable way to think about things. Here, there is no enemy that cannot be transformed. In addition, whatever good a person reaches has to maintained.
In the Lotus Sutra, there is a figure called ‘Bodhisattva Never-Disparaging‘, whose main characteristic is that he never puts anyone down. In fact, he always refers to other people as Buddhas, because he sees their potential.
In Buddhism, it’s recognized that all have this Buddha nature, which is the potential to be free, and healthy, and naturally helpful. Not only should we be free from suffering and confusion, but in this way of thinking, happiness and intrinsic wealth is all of our birthright. Without exception this is true.
Seeing Buddha Nature, our own, and that it exists everywhere, in everyone, this is the understanding that’s the basis for working without anger, certainly, and without getting discouraged. I find even the idea of this to be most helpful when things are really difficult, maybe even looking impossible for a time.
I remember a quote that’s stayed with me over the years, that goes something like this:
Buddhas do not blame living beings who are flawed, but with compassion for all sentient beings, lead them from the ocean of samsara
(the cycle of repeated dissatisfaction and suffering)
We Westerners need a lot of compassion for ourselves, to ease the way in our own life, and to know our own worth. This then becomes the basis for seeing just how much others also need acceptance, and support and encouragement to blossom.
Helping others is truly worthwhile, not only because freedom from suffering is intrinsically worthwhile, but also because of the natural wealth of happiness, and peace, that is in fact attainable by everyone.
Of course, it’s not easy, or a one-shot deal. There will be very difficult situations, but those should only make us more determined. Getting a sense of how hard it can be, and how long it can take for a person, ourself or another, to get out of suffering- that’s when we really see the need for, and value of compassion. Because it is of the greatest value, wherever we may find ourselves, and however much we are able to do, just living a compassionate life is the way of fulfillment.