Abiding in Compassion

The Mind  |  The Monastery   |   Franklyn Wu  |   April 3, 2011, 11:11 pm

[Admin’s note: This spring, volunteers and staff participated in a 7-day Guan Yin Practice Retreat. During the Guan Yin session, participants recite the name of Guan Yin Bodhisattva. In our Chan tradition, meditation brings the mind back to whatever method of practice we are doing, whether it’s mental awareness, reciting, bowing, etc… Inevitably, the mind wanders off, and we gently bring it back. Once familiar with the motion of wandering off, we see what compels the mind to stray and develop a resistance against the habituation of that e/motion.]

I will abide pervading one quarter with a mind
imbued with loving-kindness; likewise the second,
likewise the third, likewise the fourth; so above and
below, around and everywhere; and to all as to
myself. I will abide pervading the all-encompassing
world with a mind imbued with compassion;
abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility,
and without ill will.

– Suffusion of the Divine Abidings, Traditional Theravada Chant

Fine and wondrous sound: Gwan Shr Yin!
Brahma-sound, steady as the tides.
A name transcending every worldly sound,
Gwan Yin! Stay forever in my mind.

– Universal Door Chapter; Dharma Lotus Sutra

Many of the Buddha’s early teachings were framed as the negative of something else–anicca (impermanence) and anatta (not self) for example. Perhaps that’s not so surprising if one considers that the Buddha is trying to point to an experience that eludes languages and can only be stated as opposites of things we know. This pedagogical approach is possibly one of the reasons why some people think that Buddhist teachings are nihilistic and pessimistic. While demonstrating that Buddhist teachings are the opposite of nihilistic and pessimistic would be out of the scope of this brief post, I would like to allude to one example (among many) of the Buddha’s teachings, where he extolled his disciples to abide with their minds in the positive mental states of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.

The Suffusion chant above is a variation of a passage from the Tevijja Sutta. The text began with two young Brahmins arguing with each other about who has the path that will lead to unification with Brahma, a soteriological goal in Brahminism. Each of them insisted on the path he learned from his respective teacher. They decided to ask the Buddha to be the arbiter. The Buddha asked the young Brahmins if their teachers—and any of the preceding teachers in their lineage, all the way back to ancient sages in the tradition—had actually met Brahma. The young Brahmins’ replies were negative. The Buddha then discussed the qualities of Brahma—unencumbered with wives and wealth, without hate, without ill will, pure, and endowed with five disciplined senses—and asked if the Brahmins’ teachers had similar qualities. Again, the replies from the young Brahmins were negative. The Buddha then led the Brahmins to conclude that if one does not live and conduct oneself in the image of Brahma and strive to have similar qualities, one does not have a chance to unite with Brahma after one’s death.

His heart should be “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility, and without ill will.”

The Buddha then told the young men that he has seen Brahma and knows the way to unification with him. The Buddha said that the first step is for the person to join the monastic sangha and conduct himself according to the Buddha’s moral codes. Then he can practice according to the verses in the chant above—fill his heart with loving kindness (and similarly with compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity)—and abide in and suffuse this loving kindness toward all directions, encompassing the entire world. His heart should be “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility, and without ill will.” If a person can abide in and suffuse these four qualities, then he can unite with Brahma at the end of his life.

Richard Gombrich argues in his book What the Buddha Thought that the Buddha used the young Brahmins’ background to frame the teaching and discussed unification with Brahma as a logical goal of a practice. Using his interpretations of other Buddhist and Brahminical texts, Gombrich interprets “unification with Brahma” as a symbol for the goal of our spiritual journey, which for Buddhists, is nirvana. In this sutta then, the Buddha teaches that cultivating and manifesting these qualities is a means to nirvana.

Having this in mind, a Guan Yin recitation session becomes a logical, and indeed, efficient way to practice this method of abiding in compassion (and similarly, loving kindness, sympathetic joy, and equanimity).

Having this in mind, a Guan Yin recitation session becomes a logical, and indeed, efficient way to practice this method of living with compassion (and similarly, loving kindness, sympathetic joy, and equanimity). Guan Yin’s vows, conduct, and abilities serve as a model and a bridge to great compassion. In the session, we enter a form and an environment that’s conducive to skillful and wholesome actions, speech and thoughts, and throughout the session we work hard to stay mindful of Guan Yin and the compassion she manifests and represents. For seven days we keep our minds focused and concentrated, essentially in compassion. From someone who has gone through this type of session several times, the benefits are immense—better focus, more spaciousness, less entanglement in afflictions, more freedom—and now we can add moving toward ultimate enlightenment to that list of benefits, according to the Tevijja Sutta.

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