Some years ago, while driving friends to Humboldt State University in the early morning mist, the road began to wind through majestic redwoods enveloped in fog. I was still sleepy and had to pay serious attention in order not to veer into a ditch or a tree. So I kept pointing out the beauty of the forest to my passengers who, with eyes closed, were chanting the name of Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. We arrived safely, in good time and good cheer. Later I asked them why they had kept their eyes closed. “The forest is too beautiful,” was their answer.
“What a strange idea of compassion, that it might be so pure as to have no thought for beauty.”
They then told me that their main concern was to not let thoughts wander, and to avoid compromising a purity of mind that is not easy to attain. While I admired their discipline and dedication, as well as their chanting, I thought, “What a strange idea of compassion, that it might be so pure as to have no thought for beauty.” After all, what could be more beautiful than the beat of our very being, the original meaning of the Dharma?[¹] These chants, ceremonies and religious rites aim to catch this very beat, to reconnect us to this rhythm.
Nowadays in the West, it seems that the word religion has replaced both dharma and rite in providing the context of a spiritual path. Originally the word religion meant “what reconnects.” However “what reconnects” is subtle, and often not so evident to us. It may be worthwhile to retrace our steps back to ancient India in order to refresh this image. In India’s ancient world, the common definition of religion was explicit: it was a path of purification. There were many such paths, a hundred paths, satta patha, to be exact.
In brief, life was seen as a continuous vibration (parispandah) of minute substances of energy that exist throughout the cosmos.
Two of these spiritual paths are now known as Jainism and Buddhism. Jains and Buddhists alike observed life as a flow of impulses, considering them minute vibrating units of energy. In brief, life was seen as a continuous vibration (parispandah) of minute substances of energy that exist throughout the cosmos. Such substances are not considered as matter, but have the capacity to turn into matter by coagulating. This happens only if these minute energy units rub one against the other and produce a viscosity attracting each other and forming clusters that eventually solidify. The process of solidification is commonly translated from the Jain texts into English as passion. For the Jains, this passion was seen as bondage. In this manner, Jain texts explicitly divided the flow into an inner and outer process. The outer corresponds to the polluting viscous influences, while the inner remain an activity capable of filtering the flow.[²]
The Buddha did not abandon this theory, which had supported his spiritual awakening. However, he perceived this concept of inner and outer as a barrier that could potentially stifle the flow of vitality, and so chose to delicately avoid pronouncing an artificial division of this flow. Stark, impenetrable divisions can irreparably separate each one of life’s impulses into two, robbing them of their energy, causing a short in the circuit, as it were. This is possibly why the Buddha became known as a compassionate being, in contradistinction to a passionate being. The Buddha had no intention to discredit passion, nor exclude it, but rather make the world more aware of its potentials.
To gain such awareness and see passion and compassion as elements of the same impulse is no easy matter.
Compassion in this context is that which comes with passion as part and parcel of each impulse, denoting awareness at its best. It is an intrinsic discernment that gently hones every minuscule impulse of life that vibrates in and around us. To gain such awareness and see passion and compassion as elements of the same impulse is no easy matter.
Unfortunately today compassion seems to be losing its meaning, due to the same polarizing divisiveness that the Buddha sensed some two thousand five hundred years ago. More often than not, today compassion conveys nothing more than a sense of pity that weakens passion’s initial strength.
As I listened to the chant of my co-travelers while driving through the forest of Humboldt County on that foggy morning, the word enthusiasm sprang to mind as a temporary replacement for the contentious word passion. Cognate with ethos and with ethics, albeit somewhat ethereal, could enthusiasm bypass this potential polarization, providing delicately placed stepping stones that reinvigorate the Buddhist path, in all its vibrant hues?
As words tend to do, the word dharma has traveled around the world accruing many meanings. According to one linguistic theory, this word existed in ancient Iran, before it entered Europe, albeit with a slight morphological modification. There it was pronounced as a-rta. The operative sound nevertheless remained rh as it moved on. By the time it reached Southern Europe, it turned into rite, and then rhythm. In the Slavic languages of Eastern Europe however, the word drma still exists in its Indic form. Its meaning is prosaic, a vibration or an agitation.