Commentary by Gendo
Compassion’s Latin root means “feeling with.” Buddhists talk about the “meeting of subject and object.” Christians say, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.” Can you teach compassion?
From a Buddhist standpoint, compassion is completely natural. There is nothing to learn, nothing to teach. It is the natural expression of your “true” or authentic self.
How could you possibly teach someone their own true self? Of course, everyone has to find their own way. Maybe there are helpful signs. Maybe there are favorable conditions. But you can’t do that work for someone else.
What is that work? Buddhism calls it the work of not clinging, not clinging to ideas about your own identity. That’s not a directive, like “you must not cling.” Rather it is what you do when you let “nature take its course”. Notice clinging and the consequences of clinging and you know for yourself that your true nature does not cling to anything.
Every day something has to be done. You have to jump out of the way of a speeding car, or lift your hand quickly from a hot stove. A baby cries and you have to pick it up: You just do it.
It is not clinging until you fixate an idea about yourself. It becomes clinging when you adopt an attitude, like “I am never in the right place. ” Or “I’m a really smart person.” Or even “I am so compassionate!” It’s that “I am”, that assertion of an objective identity, that gets in the way and is different from what was, in the first place, unselfconscious. .
Gets in the way of what? Change, of course. Everything changes, including yourself. Youth becomes old age. Pride comes before fall. A fixated self is like trying to stand straight in a rushing river.
Buddhism says that your true self is “empty.” It’s not that your self is some great void, an emptiness that is just another “I am” identity. The true experience of self is said to be empty of independent identity, empty of ‘self-consciousness’. In that sense emptiness embraces everything.
We commonly think of our bodies as being ourselves. You can, of course, look at your own hand and say, “This is my hand.” But notice that the one who sees the hand stands apart from it. You, the observer, and your hand are in that moment separate from each other. You can look at every part of your body, even imagining the insides that you cannot see, and the same thing is true. The self that observes stands apart from the thing observed. Consider not just your body, but also its decline, in aging and death. The one who regards all of this is detached from it. Consider feeling and thought, both positive and negative, in the same way. All are separate from the “you” that stands apart from them and observes them, Self is not found in anything that we perceive as object. The observer cannot observe itself and is, in this sense, unknowable.
Just as this “I am” rests on a foundation that is empty of an observable self, the same is true of other selves. Thus the act of greeting requires more than exchange of information. It involves ritual, my emptiness acknowledging another’s emptiness: bowing in some cultures, shaking hands or hugging in others. In emptiness, self recognizes other as itself, an experience we call true (selfless) love, or compassion.
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