Compassion versus Wisdom

OK, the title is a trick–as we know, compassion and wisdom are complementary, and in the end of course there is no difference between them at all. Buddhahood, enlightenment, full awakening is the ultimate development of both, and they are ultimately undifferentiable, like any qualities we may ascribe to the nature of mind for the purpose of discussing it. Buddhahood is sometimes likened to a bird with two wings–both wings have to function fully for flight to take place.

I hear a lot about the importance of engaged Buddhism, putting compassion into action, not thinking it is enough to sit on our cushion or chair and meditate. Sometimes there seems even to be an implication that sitting on the cushion is indulgent compared with being up and about to help others in active ways. Why waste time in solitude when so many are suffering?

While it is definitely part of our mission as aspiring bodhisattvas to be of help to others in whatever ways we can–from offering a cup of tea to jumping in front of a train to save someone, as Tai Situ Rinpoche once put it in a teaching at PTC– it is a fallacy to think that engaging in meditation is any less important.

The problem with action in lieu of meditation is that if we don’t develop wisdom, no matter how much we wish to help beings, we won’t see clearly what is needed, and despite our best intentions we can end up being ineffectual or even making things worse rather than better. How many of us have experienced the “help” of a well-meaning friend or family member that left us feeling misunderstood, angry, depressed, or in some other way worse off than before? How many times have we perhaps unknowingly made the same mistake?

One of the many stories I tell on myself is about how I tried to save a bug from drowning in a neighbor’s wading pool when my daughter was about two years old. Seeing the bug struggling in the water, I pulled it out–another sentient being saved!–and freed it into the grass. As I started to walk away with my daughter, something made me look back, and I saw that I had liberated the bug right into a spider web.

According to Gampopa, author of The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, the Kagyu Lineage’s comprehensive guidebook to enlightenment, the whole point of the path is that samsara, the cycle of existence that traps all of us in suffering, is by definition a state of confusion, of not seeing things the way they really are. To clear away our suffering, we need to clear away our confusion. If we don’t, then our ability to benefit others will remain at best limited and at worst (as in my attempt to save the bug) counterproductive.

Watching TV, surfing our devices, engaging in gossip about friends, movie stars and politicians: these are indisputable techniques for wasting time. If we want to make the most of our bodhisattva aspirations to benefit others, this is where we can look to cut our losses. Engaging in calm abiding meditation to bring our mind to rest and start to recognize our innate wisdom awareness, or in the practice of Chenrezig to cultivate deep compassion: these are ways to enhance our ability to be of service.

Additionally, if our mind isn’t tamed, if our negative, afflictive emotions still have power over us, we may find–or fail to realize–that our altruism is tainted by anger, desire, jealousy, or pride; or by the most basic of all afflicted states of mind: ego-clinging or self-concern, the very state of confusion itself, which can manifest as a blatant or subtle desire for approval, praise, profit, power, followers, or fame. We need time on the cushion to become familiar with how our mind typically operates and the ways in which it can trick us, as well as with its ultimate nature underneath the constant stream of thoughts we may not even notice.

As bodhisattvas on the path, it’s very important to constantly examine our motivation, to make sure our efforts to help others come from a dharma perspective that can help free them from immediate suffering and also from the afflictive emotions based on ego-clinging that are the cause of that suffering–rather than fueling thoughts, emotions and actions that risk digging them–and us–deeper into samsara. If we don’t have the capacity, or don’t take the time, to meditate for at least a few minutes every day, we will never develop the capacity to free ourselves from samsara, let alone others.

Of course, when an earthquake strikes, or an elderly neighbor needs groceries or medical attention, or we see a bug drowning in a wading pool, we spring into action. There are opportunities to ease the suffering of other beings every single day, and as Situ Rinpoche told us, it is very important to help beings in any immediate ways we can. My point is simply that time spent in meditation or other dharma practice is equally essential to the well-being of the world.

At the very least, before we plunge into a project to help someone (unless it’s an emergency, and even then if possible), we can remember to cultivate calm, awareness, and a vast compassionate perspective by taking one or more attentive breaths and bringing our mind to rest in the moment–out of our current thought clouds and into the kind of grounded physical, emotional and mental presence that will allow us to be of the greatest possible help in any situation.