2016-06-30
From "Buddhist Acts of Compassion," compiled and edited by Pamela Bloom. Published by Conari Press. Used by permission.

BEYOND PROTEST, by Barbara Brodsky

In the sixties I spent a lot of time working with human rights. In the early years, I was sometimes more motivated by fear and saw some of the painful results of that ego at work. I remember a sit-in at a small Southern lunch counter. We were two Northern students, and so self-righteous. We had no idea what those in the town were thinking and feeling and we did not want to know. We only wanted to express our viewpoint and righteousness. We wanted to change them.

We came into the lunchroom and sat at the counter, two young women, one white and one black, facing the glares of those sitting around us. The cook just looked at us and asked what we wanted. "Coke, milkshake, doughnut," came our replies. We were feeling smug; was it really this easy?

He gathered some items and carried them to the counter. I remember how he approached me with my doughnut and the large glass of Coke, sweat-covered from its icy contents. I looked at the glass with pleasure since the day was hot. He reached out with the glass, and with no hesitation poured it over my head. While I sat there in shock, he crumbled the doughnut over me too. The second counterman did the same to my partner. Then he nodded, and the others at the counter simply picked us up, carried us out the door, dumped us on the curb, and locked the door behind us.

In those early days, I totally lacked compassion for this opposition. They were wrong and I was right; it was that simple. I had no ability to be present with their pain nor to hear them. I had no ability to be present with my own fear nor hear myself.

Years passed and I did learn. No one incident was my primary teacher, but I do remember a few hours in a small jail. One of my cell partners was an older, Southern black woman, large of body and with soft, deep eyes. She wore a black dress covered with red roses and a tiny hat still adorned her head. I was angry at what had happened that particular day, an incident not too different from the one in the lunchroom.

I was expressing that anger, muttering, pacing the cell. After about an hour she walked up to me so sweetly and in a kind voice invited me to sit down. "Aren't you angry, too?" I asked her. "Yes," she replied, "but I also love them, Sweetheart, and they are so afraid." She hugged me gently as I wept. She taught me with those simple words that anger and compassion were not mutually exclusive. It was the first time my eyes really opened to what was happening around me, and from this sister, whose name I never even knew, I began to learn the power of love.


FROM VICTIM TO LIBERATOR, by Pamela Bloom

I was on a retreat in the south of France when a visiting master was introduced to the group. He was about forty years old, quite tall and broad-shouldered for a Tibetan, with an enormous presence like a mountain. As he spoke, he repeatedly wiped at his draining right eye, as if something in him was constantly crying, but his voice remained strong. Soon his personal story unfolded.

For fifteen years, as a young man, this Rinpoche and his elderly master had been imprisoned inside Tibet as victims of Chinese persecution. The conditions they had to endure were of the roughest sort, with many days spent chained together in their dark, dirty cell. Their captors, not content with normal torture, were determined to persecute devout Tibetans in the worst possible way--by denying them the right to meditate. Every time their eyes closed, they were beaten. But because Tibetans actually meditate with their eyes open, the two were able to continue their prayers and meditations in secret.

As the years went by, the abuse only got worse; in fact, Rinpoche's constantly tearing eye was the result of beatings from that time. He even had to endure the loss of his master, who died next to him one night in their cell. After many years of torture, escape from this living hell had come to seem impossible.

But then one day, out of the blue, two of the jailers addressed him directly. "What are you doing?" they said. "No matter what we do to you, no matter how we hurt you, nothing moves you." Apparently the jailers had practiced all sorts of martial arts, but they had finally met a power they didn't understand. "You know something we don't," they told him. "and because we are the jailers, we must learn it in order to become stronger than you."

So because he had no other weapon, he taught his jailers the Tibetan meditation called Tonglen, which is the practice of breathing in the suffering of others and breathing out light. It was the same practice many of us had been learning at this retreat with some struggle, for actually to take on the suffering of others with no sense of martyrdom or resentment is a great affront to one's ego. So, to imagine that this monk and his master had found the inspiration to teach it in the middle of hell to the agents of their suffering...well, that is the essence of Buddhist compassion. And, as a result, the unbelievable happened.

One day, the Chinese jailers suddenly announced to their Tibetan captive that they were releasing him from jail. No reason. Just his time was up. And they set him free.

And that is how he came to be before us on that bright sunny day in the south of France, with his eye running like a persistent rain of remembrance, his gaze brilliantly clear. There was not even a trace of resentment in his voice, only perhaps the bittersweet irony that his master had not lived to see that somewhere between the in-breath and the out-breath, the boundary between persecutor and persecuted had finally been dissolved.

LOVE WITHOUT BIAS, by Michel Rousseau

A few years back I was living in a very small space in Paris, and every night I walked my dog for about an hour. Many times we'd go to a little garden near the Champs Elysees and I would meditate, at the same time watching and playing with my dog. Even though there were a lot of people walking past, they didn't see me, so I felt I could be alone. I remember thinking about my teachers, how they said it was important to feel compassion for everybody without judgment or favoritism, so one evening I decided to try.

The people walking by were close enough to see, but too far away for me to have any thought about them. So I began to pray completely freely for these people without judgment. Everybody was a stranger, but at the same time I felt very close to them because I could really give them all my love very freely, without thinking about receiving anything in return.

Suddenly I was completely surrounded by bliss. I was giving love, but in return I was feeling ten times more. I was really receiving the blessing and compassion of my masters.

I began to do the same thing in the car. Sometimes the car would get stuck in traffic, or be waiting for a light, and my eyes would meet someone for maybe a fraction of a second in the street. In that moment, very often I would just try looking at the person, smiling and sending my love, feeling in my heart, I love you, for example. Looking at the person and smiling at him or her without thinking was very easy because it was just a momentary glance as the person was passing by. So my love was much more like equanimity--all-inclusive, without bias. Sometimes I could really see that the person would be completely transformed by this kind of shock--that somebody was smiling at him or her for no reason.

more from beliefnet and our partners