The Heart of Compassion

by Swami B.V. Tripurari.

Sweetest tales are those that tell of saddest times. The saddest aspects of life give rise to compassion in the hearts of those who are self-realized. Thus compassion is a synthesis of both happiness and distress, for the compassionate are not unhappy themselves, but are unhappy for others while satisfied in their own lives. This is the basis of the transcendent experience, a synthesis of polar opposites -- good/bad, hot/cold, happiness/distress -- that takes us above duality. Compassion is the heart of transcendence, and it is in enlightened consciousness that we can find the heart of compassion.

The distress of others provides the opportunity to lend a helping hand, and the joy derived from helping others is unparalleled. But to experience the highest joy, to get to the heart of compassion, we will have to know the extent of the suffering in this world and how to stop it. If we do not know the root cause of another's suffering, we may do that person more harm than good in attempting to alleviate his or her misery. If our baby cries because of too much gas in her stomach, but we think she is crying out of hunger, our good intentions and the best milk will have the worst effect.

According to the Vedanta, the reasoning of Indian philosophy, all the visible suffering of this world has an underlying, invisible cause. The disease of which hunger, epidemics, political oppression, environmental disaster, and violations of human and animal rights are symptoms, is called maya, or illusion. This illusion arises out of misidentification. As individual units of consciousness, chit kana, identify with matter, the veil of illusion is drawn. Perceiving the world through the medium of the senses, we gather information and experience. As the senses of hearing, tasting, smelling, seeing, and touching contact their objects -- sound, flavor, aroma, shape, and form -- sensations are relayed to the mind. The mind either accepts or rejects these sensations, categorizing them as good or bad. Thus whether something tastes good or bad is relative; that is, it is not true in all instances. The same thing may taste delicious to you and unpalatable to me. So which is it? "Neither," Vedanta replies. The very sense of good or bad, happiness or distress, hot or cold, is illusory. Through the mind and senses, consciousness creates an illusory world of good and evil. The purpose of spiritual culture is to take us beyond the purview of the mind and senses to see the true nature of reality. Thus we are said to be suffering from an identity crises. The whole of our material experience is likened to be a bad dream from which we need to awaken. Sri Chaitanya has referred to the task of awakening the sleeping masses to their spiritual prospect as para upakara, the best thing we can do for suffering humanity. Short of this, all measures to improve our present situation do not get to the root of the problem.

This basic theme can be elaborated upon considerably. The Vedanta makes a very strong case, one that many Western thinkers have been forced to reckon with. Yet applying this logic seems almost inhuman. Are we to neglect the world we live in? How can we be spiritual, filled with divine love and compassion, and at the same time be insensitive to the suffering around us, ignoring it while absorbed in "meditation"?

How to harmonize the logic of Vedanta and our own humanness is a problem that any thoughtful and caring person must deal with. Solving this problem is tantamount to self-realization. It involves understanding our human condition as the final stage in our evolution toward enlightenment, and human compassion as a shadow of the substance of absolute compassion, a shadow we need to pass through on our way to transcendence. Any approach to ultimate transcendence that does not deal thoroughly with this dilemma will keep us tied to mundanity, even while surrounded by spiritual trappings.

There are two basic pitfalls on the spiritual path, two erroneous conceptions that arise in attempting to deal with this crucial issue. The first leaves one hard-hearted, the second renders one illogical.

Insensitivity to the plight of others sometimes predominates in those who have formally adopted a spiritual path. Using the logic of the scriptures and repeating the words of the rishis can be abused to insulate one from one's own inner inadequacies in genuinely caring for others on the human level. This amounts to confusing genuine detachment (a very high state of consciousness) with indifference to the suffering of others. The difficulties others face are viewed rather coolly by the first group as "tough karma.", "People are getting what they deserve, reaping what they themselves have sown." No doubt this is true; however, merely adopting the reasoning and language of enlightenment is insufficient.

Living in a monastery atop the Himalayas is often thought of as the ultimate spiritual cop-out. And it may be for many who are not yet able to embrace the spiritual path wholeheartedly -- those who are trying to escape their lack of caring by hiding behind the robes of renunciation. In the words of Anthony, Ecker, and Wilber in Spiritual Choices, theirs is "an epistemological sleight-of-hand by claiming an existential point of view which is not, in fact, authentic for him or her. The follower's consciousness is still heavily conditioned by pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow. An honest orientation would involve concern and empathy for the suffering of others, and, while accepting suffering as a result of karma, would view karmic determination as a process that one is not yet able to fully understand or apply to the problem of suffering." Adopting the dress of a renunciate is not enough; one must become a truly caring person on all levels.

When fully developed, the transcendentalist will naturally choose to apply their caring where it will do the most good. At the same time, a spiritually evolved person cannot shed a tear for the pain others feel, on the human level. The enlightened souls may not spend their time opening hospitals, but they genuinely care about the suffering of others. This is possible for them because of their genuine detachment, which allows them full involvement in all circumstances without karmic repercussions.

There are those who are evolved enough to adopt the path of renunciation and deal with the root cause of suffering directly, few though they may be. They dwell in the heart of compassion. But we, either as beginners in the ashrama or persons living in the world, cannot artificially adopt the view of the fully enlightened and not be culpable of neglecting our duty to the world and others on the human level. Thus, although there is a platform of ultimate compassion, there is also imitation, or mere intellectual adherence to this concept. The latter is a psychological manoeuvre for coping that will not help us very much, while the former is the goal of transcendent consciousness. This goal is attained through the gradual development of the compassionate heart.

One who is not ready for a life of renunciation should not live in a monastery. But if one wants to reach the heart of compassion, one must do more than help humanity, for without sensual restraint and stilling of the mind one will never know the dimension of the soul. This leads us to the second misconception -rationalizing away one's inability to adhere to spiritual practices and leaving the ashrama to "help the world."

It is not enough to help others who are suffering in the world. Feeding and clothing the poor, opening hospitals, and speaking out against political oppression do not add up to enlightenment. Spiritual practices such as controlling the senses, yoga, meditation, and activities, when engaged in under the direction of a self-realized spiritual guide, awaken realized knowledge of the nature of the self and the world around us. Philantrophy and altruism cannot replace meditation. They are in fact tinged with the mud of mundanity. They are extended forms of ego-gratification, which reach beyond immediate bodily gratification and cater to the subtle form of our material condition, the mental system. The good feeling we get from feeding the poor, for example, is often based on our mental conception of what the world is (as understood through the medium of the senses), a notion that is sure to be mistaken. It gratifies to our illusory conception of the self. It is a subtle form of self-centeredness. Even if we see others' suffering as our own, not admitting to the illusion of separateness we live in, we experience at best an underdeveloped spirituality, for in this condition one has yet to gain acquaintance with his or her spiritual individuality as a servant of Godhead.

The work of God is not to help the poor any more than it is to help the rich, not to help the sick any more than to help those who are healthy. In fact the rich and the healthy may be more in need of God's help, proud as they often are of their pennies and push-ups. Equating philanthropic works with ultimate spirituality is a common misconception that arises in dealing with the harmonizing of the head and heart. Living in a monastery yet unable to practice the discipline or feeling the need to be involved with the world such that one's practices are constantly disturbed is certainly justification for leaving the mountain top. Yet it is easy to rationalize one's material attachments, thinking that by leaving and, say, working for the blind, one is opening the eyes of others to the ignorance or misidentification (maya). In fact, one may be facilitating the prolongation of another's life in illusion. Such persons should leave the ashrama, yet understand their shortcomings and be careful not to justify their actions, equating their inadequacies with the work of the enlightened.

Spiritual life unfolds gradually. We cannot jump to the highest platform, ignoring the nature and degree of our material conditioning. We cannot equate spiritual life with fact-gathering; spiritual life must translate into action. It is indeed a cop-out to espouse the philosophy of Vedanta but not care for the suffering of others. But it is also a cop-out to equate our material identification and desire for material interaction with the work of enlightened consciousness. Those practising spiritual life who cannot leave the world behind and rationalize their leaving the monastery or their practice for the sake of doing philanthropic work are as guilty of pseudo-spirituality as the false renunciates.

The heart of compassion ultimately lies in enlightenment. The work of the enlightened soul is not opening hospitals. It is curing the disease of misidentification by broadcasting the message of transcendence, while genuinely caring for the suffering of others. Reaching this goal is no easy task: it requires that we carefully practice spiritual discipline while assessing the degree to which we are still under the jurisdiction of karma, the law of this world. Honest assessment of our condition will then dictate our responsibility to worldly affairs. Gradually, with spiritual guidance, we can pass through (not skip over or get stuck in) human compassion and arrive at the inner heart of compassion. It is here that real caring takes place based on knowledge of what is worth caring about and what the ultimate cause of suffering is.

The boy-saint Prahlad of the Bhagavad Purana is an example of the heart of compassion. Once self-realized, he thought not to leave the world but to remain and attend to the deliverance of all other living entities from the mire of illusion. Buddha, Shankara, Christ, Sri Chaitanya, and many others also stand out as examples in the history of the world. They cared for the sufferings of others, but their time was principally spent in their own spiritual cultivation and subsequently disseminating transcendental knowledge and advocating love of God. Their view was decidedly that service to God is the highest service to humankind, not that service to humankind is the last word in service to Godhead.

The element of higher compassion in transcendence is a logical necessity. If it does not exist, the balance of good and evil that all caring people seek is not to be found, for as long as we remain within the world of sense perception, our good will always be an evil for someone else.
Genuine spirituality is not an icy act of world-denying, nor is it a flaky sentimental embracing of the problems of others without knowledge of an overall solution to their suffering. It is a caring based on knowledge, a spiritual emotion, if you will. There is a transcendental status of neutrality beyond worldly love and hate, a higher synthesis that cancels out the material duality. And it is this state that we endeavor for through philanthropic and altruistic efforts, attempting to bring balance to our world. We seek it, but how close do we come to it by the everyday means of lending a helping hand? Only as far as we understand that through such world-serving activity our work is all for naught. That is, it will never permanently change the world. Thus the value of such work is not in that it improves a world where death is the norm, but that it softens the heart, enabling us to pass through material compassion to transcendental knowledge.

As long as the heart is stonelike and cannot shed a tear for not only the plight of humanity but all species, there is no question of developing the pure heart of spiritual compassion. Ram Das has explained it thus: "There are many levels of heart. And the human heart will break because it empathizes. The deeper heart -the hridayam, the jivatma, or the hsin hsin in Chinese- that heart is the one that looks at the universe just as it is, in a non-reactive way, and says, 'Ah so, yes.' And it includes your own human heart which is breaking, but your identity isn't only with your human heart. Your identity is with a deeper intuitive heart of wisdom which is different."

Self-realized souls are usually not involved in helping others in their various predicaments in this world because they do not see the suffering as we do. They are also too busy serving the need of those ready to hear about the ultimate solution to material suffering.

A few years ago, during a speaking tour I did in Eastern Europe, a young man from Bulgaria asked me, "Does your mission of meditation and self-realization do anything for the suffering of the world? What does it do practically to solve the world's problems?" I replied, "The difference between you and I is that you think the world has problems, whereas I think that the 'world', as you see it, is the problem." For the self-realized soul, everything is moving in accordance with the will of God. Let well enough alone, and inform others that everything is all right. The only thing lacking is acquiring the proper angle of vision.

Once one of my godbrothers asked my guide if he could render any service. To this our mentor replied, "Change your angle of vision; this is real service." Hunger, for example, is not a stomach problem, it is a disease of the heart. As long as we insist on viewing the world through the limited and imperfect instruments of sense perception, we live in a world we have created, not the kingdom of God. We live where one living being is food for another, where exploitation is the norm. We create friends and enemies and perpetuate our suffering.

Just as the suffering of a son after his first childhood heartbreak is not something to take very seriously, so the suffering of humanity is not what it is made out to be by those who are presently troubled by it. One who sees the soul in all circumstances knows that the future of the struggling living entities is bright. Our human suffering, however long it endures, is insignificant when compared to eternity. However many lifetimes it may take to tread the path of eternality amounts to but a few moments of our real life. It is all a dream soon to be forgotten, a sad tale that tells, if we look very closely, of sweeter times.


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