“Compassion Itself Is an Action”: Karmapa in Dialogue with Young Activists
(May 9, 2015 – Seattle, Washington) His Holiness the Karmapa this morning shared the stage with six young activists whose life work puts into direct action the principles and values that His Holiness has been encouraging throughout his two-month trip. In an event organized by the Nalandabodhi community headed by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, the Karmapa first delivered a talk entitled “A Call to Compassionate Action,” and then participated in a panel discussion with the six area leaders on issues of social justice.
With an iconic image of Seattle’s Mt. Rainier serving as a massive backdrop, the 17th Karmapa set the tone for the interaction by declaring unequivocally that, “Compassion itself is an action.” He went on to elaborate, saying, “Compassion must pierce the heart, in such a way that the heart is translated into action.”
Cutting across the assumption that compassion is simply a feeling that resides in the mind or heart, His Holiness explored the relationship between body, speech and mind in the context of compassionate action. He cited a saying in Tibetan Buddhism that the sign of a beginner’s first compassionate action is that they cease to eat meat. The Karmapa affirmed that there is no requirement to become vegetarian upon adopting a Buddhist path, nevertheless the moment in which the impulse to end the suffering of others leads a practitioner to take the concrete step of abandoning meat can mark the first step in the process of manifesting one’s compassion physically and verbally.
His Holiness related that Tibetan Buddhism offers many different techniques for cultivating compassion and bringing that compassion from the realm of the mind into the realms of our body and speech. Ultimately, he said, “we train to express compassion through every pore of our bodies.”
He then explored an approach that takes the five senses as a domain for the cultivation and expression of compassion. We use our eyes as the eyes of compassion, looking at others in a way that we truly see them and recognize their suffering, without averting our eyes or wavering in our gaze. At the same time, he said, we seek to show our love and compassion by how we look at others. In the end, he said, “We can radiate compassion directly to anyone that we see.”
Taking our auditory faculty as another example, the Karmapa described listening as a practice of compassion in which we listen to others in such a way that we truly hear them. “Whenever you hear sounds made by other beings or hear the voices of people speaking, you try to suffuse your hearing with the heart of compassion,” he said.
Taking physical contact as another example, His Holiness said that here, too, we can emanate compassion through touch. “When we shake hands or give someone a hug,” he said, “we can generate love in our heart and radiate it to them through that contact.”
In the end, the 17th Karmapa explained, the point in cultivating compassion is “not just to feel the warmth of love and compassion within ourselves, but to be able to send it out so that others are touched and warmed by it.”
As he described this practice, leaning forward toward the packed hall, not a word was heard as the audience lent him their eyes and ears, held firmly in his own gaze. He went on, “If we embrace all experiences this way, with an attitude of love, and we continue practicing this from day to day, ultimately we can reach a point where even being seen by another person will cause that person to feel at peace, to feel an easing of their aggression and an increase in their own experience of loving kindness. This kind of result is really possible.”
He then referenced textual descriptions of just such a transformation taking place in the homes visited by the bodhisattva Maitreya, whose primary practice is love. Speaking from his own personal experience, the Karmapa recounted how he himself experiences his problems dissolving into a sense of peace when he comes into the presence of holy beings.
Bringing the phenomenon into a more accessible realm, he added that the power of a mother’s love has a similar effect. Her presence in the room creates a perceptible sense of security and wellbeing in the family. “Her love touches everyone in the room and fills the room completely.” It is for this reason that the loss of a mother is felt so keenly, as she seems to take with her the immediate and vivid presence of that love. “This indicates,” His Holiness the Karmapa said, “that the power of love is available in common to everyone. It is not a superpower reserved for special situations but rather is something we can all share.”
Turning his attention to the component of commitment and courage that is needed for our compassion to become manifest in action, he emphasized that we must dedicate ourselves completely to the individuals whose suffering we wish to end. To that end, he stressed the importance that there not be a perception of distance between the other whom we seek to benefit and ourselves.
“We really embrace the totality of the people we’re feeling compassion for,” he said, “really opening ourselves to the entirety of their experience, with no separation between us and them.”
To the degree possible, we should seek to dissolve the dualism implicit in the sense of self as separate from other, he said. He spoke briefly on the perspective of interdependence that shows us that the hard boundaries we create between ourselves and others are ultimately untenable, and then suggested he leave the remainder of that topic to be explored in the afternoon, to leave ample time for the panelists to share their own experiences.
“I had a chance to meet these wonderful young women and men a short time ago,” His Holiness said, “and I feel they are wonderful examples. We spiritual teachers mostly talk about compassion, love, and so on, but these young women and men are putting it into action in a direct and helpful way.”
For the remainder of the session, a video highlighting the activist work of each panelist was shown, and the panelist then posed a question to His Holiness, with Nalandabodhi’s Mitra Mark Power moderating and Mitra Tyler Dewar translating, as he has done for His Holiness during the Midwest and West Coast portions of this tour. First to speak was Burmese refugee Ta Kwe Say, whose video recounted the painful experience of separation from his family and going into hiding and then exile in the United States, as well as his work to support other refugees. His question to the Karmapa began by stating the urgency to build alliances to be able to address the many forms of injustice and suffering in the world. “How can we dismantle barriers of ‘them versus us’ mentality, and build alliances so our compassionate work can be supported?” he asked.
His Holiness emphatically agreed with the need to build alliances, and eliminate the sense of us against them. He then explored how an increased understanding of interdependence could work to erode the sense of separation that underlies the division into rival groups. The Karmapa urged that this point of view be integrated into secular education. “Economic education, political education, scientific education—there is room in all these fields to increase awareness of value and appreciation of interdependence.”
Next was Silas Follendorf, who herself once lived on the streets and today works at YouthCare doing outreach to Seattle’s many street kids, homeless and at-risk youth. Her question regarded how to make her work sustainable in the face of so much trauma and pain. “Sometimes my heart begins to shut down and I want to step back,” she said.
His Holiness replied with great emphasis, saying that in order to sustain our commitment to work for others, we must encourage ourselves and also care for ourselves. “We should give ourselves permission to find satisfaction in that,” he said. “We do this work all day long, and at the end of each day it is very important to allow ourselves to feel content that we have engaged in these activities during the day, to nourish ourselves with the knowledge that they are beneficial and will help to produce happiness for others. We do not need to wait for the future to be satisfied now.”
“The work you are doing is very meaningful and bringing direct benefit and sparking the experience of happiness for these people,” he told her. “You need to appreciate that and allow it to become a source of sustenance for you.
“After all,” he added, “if our hand isn’t warm, we will not be able to warm someone else’s hand by grabbing it. To warm someone else up we first need to become warm ourselves.”
Videos and questions followed from two other youth activists. Jennifer Hotes, who works with Love City Love, an arts collective that promotes healing through performing arts, asked about the role of fun. Rekeda Roundtree, who teaches in a program at Roots of Empathy to enhance empathy in schoolchidren, asked about the nature of competition.
Next were two youth ambassadors for Seeds of Compassion, Olivia Smith and Habib Behjatnia. Olivia Smith spoke first, sharing her observation that: “Compassion looks one way in the privileged realm, but in poor communities, it can look like taking care of siblings or making dinner. In events like this I feel like compassion is commoditized. Not everyone gets to be a part of this conversation.”
His Holiness responded that this was related to what our society values and how we define wealth. After speaking of his experience growing up in an impoverished but happy environment, he observed that modern society appears to have inverted the values. The emphasis on material wealth as what is considered precious and valuable has been accompanied by a devaluing of compassion and love. He explained that dialogues that draw attention to the underappreciated value of compassion have a role in bringing about a rethinking of its place in our world to ultimately transform society. “Of course,” he said in conclusion, “it is going to take a lot more than just talking for a few hours or days about compassion.”
Habib Behjatnia’s question for His Holiness followed naturally from the previous comments as he asked how to promote compassion in a society that places tremendous emphasis on competitiveness, productivity and material wealth. The Karmapa affirmed that, “We are living in an intense time of commercialization and commodification of everything.” He then stressed the importance of ensuring that our cultivation of love and compassion be free of any interest in reward or benefit to oneself. In order that this be the case, there must be “no separation between self as the source of compassion and other people as the recipients of compassion.”
The first session thus closed, with the promise of a second session later in the evening, in which His Holiness the Karmapa would explore more deeply the Buddhist approach to dissolving boundaries between self and other. With a three hours’ break until the second session of the event, many took the time to explore the stands that had been set up around the hall, to encourage people to connect with organizations taking practical steps to put compassion into action.