Dhamma Reflection – A Listening Heart

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A Listening Heart

A Dhamma Reflection from Ajahn Amaro

During this period of the coronavirus pandemic, and the worldwide lockdown of millions of people, great acts of self-sacrifice are being carried out all around us. Nurses and doctors, carers of many kinds and support staff, have literally died for their patients in numerous countries and thoughtful acts of kindness and unselfishness are reported daily. Just here at Amaravati it is deeply touching how so many you, our friends and supporters, although unable to bring offerings in person to the kitchen and to receive our usual blessings and expressions of ‘Sādhu anumodanā!’, still make sure deliveries of food and other necessities get to our ‘back-gate drop-off station’ and the more than 60 of us living here are still able to carry on our lives as a Buddhist renunciant community. This continuing faith, generosity and diligence is greatly appreciated so – even just through the medium of pixels on a screen ‘Sādhu anumodanā!’ to you all.

‘Suffering With’?

It is profoundly moving and inspiring to see such compassion being exercised in the human family but it occurred to me that compassion, as we customarily relate to it, can be a source of more suffering rather than a means to relieve it. 

Throughout my childhood and teens, despite being a rough-and-tumble character in some respects, I was also easily moved to tears. The would-be encouraging injunction, ‘Boys don’t cry’ worked sometimes but often it did not. I would feel deeply for the suffering of others and I could be inconsolable at times. This was such an issue with the family that I was firmly forbidden to watch the film ‘Bambi’ – they knew I would be in floods of tears and would be having nightmares for weeks at the horror of Bambi losing his mother to the bullet of a hunter.  

When reflecting on this condition, in hindsight, I realized how I had always felt I had to relieve the suffering of others – animals or people – and, if they continued to suffer despite my best efforts then it was always my fault:– ‘If only I could do more or better then they wouldn’t suffer, therefore their continued suffering is because of me.’ I took it all very personally and I could never do enough.

It was thus a revelation, when I entered the monastery, to discover that compassion, karuṇā, in Buddhist psychology, is not a state of suffering, indeed it is far from it – it is a brahma-vihāra, a ‘divine abiding’, a great spacious brightness. The Buddha points out that if you are suffering on account of the suffering of others, that is not true compassion. It is a distorted compassion, a false compassion, a compassion that is not really complete or purified. It is not whole. 

The English word ‘compassion’ literally means ‘suffering with’. Passio/passionis is a Latin word meaning ‘suffering’, as the passion of Christ relates to the suffering and death of Jesus. And the Latin prefix ‘com’ means ‘with’. But the Buddhist principle of compassion is talking about something else. It is an attitude that is fully attentive and open to the pain of others, but does not suffer on account of that pain. I think most Westerners would agree that, culturally, this is hard for us to comprehend, let alone achieve. Usually we either turn away and remain indifferent to the suffering of others, or we feel upset or angry on their behalf and desperately try to help. We have a strange cultural tendency to show that we care by getting distraught or irritated. 

Don’t Take it Personally

However, when we are faced with the suffering of others, or with our own suffering, such as our feelings of grief, the Buddha’s teaching shows us that there can be an attitude of the heart which is fully attentive to and appreciative of that pain, but not swept up in a reaction against it or carried along by the current of it, which knows the pain fully but does not suffer on account of it.

How does the heart do this? It does it by realizing that the process need not being taken personally. It need not be cast as ‘my problem’, rather it can be seen in terms of the way nature is, the relationships between beings and the limits of our capacities. On this latter point there is the faith, the confidence, that one knows:– ‘If I could do more, I would do more; I am not being hard-hearted or selfish it’s just that this is the limit of what I can do at this time.’ Isn’t it somewhat bizarre to create suffering about something that is beyond our capacity to change?

Listening to the Sounds of the World

One significant aspect of compassion is expressed in the figure of Guan Shi Yin Bodhisattva, who comes to us from the Northern Buddhist tradition. Guan Yin is the Chinese name for this great spiritual entity – the Sanskrit is Avalokiteshvāra and the Tibetan is Chenrezig – all these names have the same meaning: ‘The one who listens to the sounds of the world’.  To me that is an extremely meaningful name for a being who is the embodiment of compassion, because it doesn’t mean that he or she is necessarily out there doing anything. The primary role of compassion, its primordial attribute, is not getting out there and ‘doing’. Its primary attribute is listening. The quality of empathetic engagement is actualized through the practice of listening. We need to train the heart to listen. 

In Pali there are a number of words for ‘compassion’: ‘karuṇā’  has been mentioned already; the Pali Text Society Dictionary tells us that ‘dayā’ means ‘sympathy, compassion, kindness’; there is also the word ‘anukampā’, translated as ‘compassion, pity, mercy’, while the verb related to it, ‘anukampati’, means ‘to have pity on, to commiserate, to sympathize with’; an ‘anukampin’ describes one who is ‘full of solicitude for the welfare of’ others. 

Among these the word ‘anukampati’ has a very interesting and meaningful origin: ‘anu’ (‘along with’) + ‘kampati’; the latter word means ‘to vibrate, shake, tremble or waver’. It thus has the sense of ‘resonating’ as in ‘empathizing’, which seems very apposite in understanding how best to relate to the sufferings of all beings. 

In the act of listening our eardrums vibrate, they resonate precisely according to the oscillations of the air, as received by the ear, conditioning the perception of sound. In the attitude of anukampā, the heart listens and resonates empathetically with the feelings of others, regardless of how painful those feelings might be, as naturally and impartially as the vibrations of the eardrum. Thus, when we think of the nature of compassion from the Buddhist point of view, it is closer to ‘empathy’ rather than ‘suffering with’. The heart attunes to the feelings of suffering but is not limited, burdened or stressed on account of that.

Doing and Not Doing

In some of the classical iconography – Chinese, Tibetan and Japanese – the figure of Avalokiteshvāra has a thousand hands, holding many kinds of implements, and each hand has an eye in it. This kind of imagery represents the capacity for ‘doing’ that arises from having listened, having attuned and seen. We often associate compassion with being in the presence of the suffering of others when they are facing terrible tragedy, and then doing something to alleviate those tragic circumstances. However, there are also smaller, more local difficulties and sufferings in people’s lives, and sometimes the best thing to do is to leave things alone. The primary quality of compassion, the root of compassion, I would suggest, is learning how to listen, to attend to what is here, to what is present – whether small or large. And from that attending, a capacity to do the appropriate thing arises. From the root of listening, the thousand eyes are watching what’s going on and the thousand hands can offer help, as needed. Guan Yin has a lot of hands to lend! That multiplicity of hands represents the multitude of ways, the ten thousand fingers and thumbs that can help – both by doing and saying, or by not doing and leaving alone, as is appropriate to the time, place and situation – but the manner of helping stems from the root of listening. 

Attending to the Inner Committee

When speaking of compassion we habitually relate to that as being for those around us who are suffering. However, along with listening to the needs of others, we need to learn to listen compassionately to our own thoughts, our own feelings, our own body, and we discern the different internal voices that we hear – what some people helpfully refer to as the ‘inner committee’. The voice of reason, the voice of kindness, the voice of the three-year-old in a tantrum because they can’t have ice cream for breakfast, they are all in there: the explaining rationalist, the sensitive one, the excited child, the fretful child, the depressed and unhappy cynic, the ever-cheerful, and the voices of unbiased kindness and unbiased wisdom. If all of these voices of the inner committee are attended to with a listening heart then it is as if wisdom itself is chairing the group. The various voices are received with respect and impartiality – the heart resonates with and attunes to them all – and they are enabled to integrate and inform mindfulness and wisdom with respect to what will be of greatest benefit for the situation.

Wisdom and Compassion Together

Lastly I would like to offer a word on how to develop compassion amidst this current crisis, specifically seeing how compassion operates both within attitude and in action; this means how we work moment by moment with the painful conditions in ourselves and others. 

It is useful to employ the power of wise reflection to support compassion. Why is this? Often a period in our life is not just one single shade of pleasure or one single shade of pain. In many, if not most instances we experience mixed feelings, and sometimes a difficult condition, something that we would never have chosen, like this coronavirus epidemic surprisingly ends up bringing immense riches with it. Thus, if we reflect on this attribute of the way things are, it strengthens the ability to open the heart and receive, to ‘listen to’, a painful situation in a more complete and wide-ranging way:– ‘Great lessons might come from this, so don’t wallow in it or push it away. Open up instead.’ 

Similarly, and by way of balance, when we think of things as perfect, delightful, we don’t realize that part of their perfection is their impermanence. Ajahn Chah would hold up a glass and say: ‘If you can see that this glass is already broken, then when it breaks you won’t suffer.’ We are enriched by seeing the glass as already broken. This means that the heart can open to the pleasant, the wished for, without claiming ownership of it or getting drunk on it. It is known as a sweet experience – a form, a sound, a memory or suchlike – but the listening heart knows not to try and possess or identify with it since, as Ajahn Chah would say, ‘It is already broken’ so our heart does not grasp and relish it, and thereby create the causes for disappointment. 

In this way wisdom (wise reflection) and compassion (empathy) support each other and, during this pandemia experience we are in the midst of, these will both be means we can use to dispel suffering around us and within us.

[Adapted from Don’t Push, Just Use the Weight of Your Own Body pp 20-24]