Karen DeCotis

Karen DeCotis

Compassion is a well-known and well-worn virtue in virtually every spiritual tradition. It is very much in the spiritual conversation these days. In Buddhism, compassion is one of the Four Immeasurables, the divine abodes. The divine abodes are all about love of one sort or another: loving kindness, sympathetic joy, compassion and equanimity. As life brings many and daunting challenges to our feet, to our hearts, these immeasurables can heal and inspire.

It is difficult to love in the face of hate. It is difficult to be calm or kind in the face of greed and injustice. It is difficult not to be greedy or hateful ourselves sometimes. But we are called to answer hate with love. Hate is never conquered with hate. Only love. Buddha called this the eternal law.

Compassion is a rich form of love. It is deep and mysterious, plumbing the depths of our empathy – the ability to feel what another feels. It encompasses our sympathy – the ability to care about those feelings. What is particular about compassion is – with our willingness to feel our own or another’s distress, and our openness to care with our whole heart about that distress, we act. We respond. We right wrongs. We hold each other or ourselves with supportive arms, with resource, with encouragement and respectful listening.

I have mentioned compassion for both self and other. We aim not to exhaust ourselves to help others. It is good to be careful not to stroke our egos by being so helpful of others and neglectful of self. We realize that fundamentally there is no separation, so we care for ourselves with gentle discipline. Love begins at home.

Many traditions embrace the virtue of compassion. We accept this intellectually. It makes good sense to practice love and create a peaceful world. But look at our world. Look at our own hearts and minds. It’s largely a mess.

In Buddhist practice we cultivate bodhicitta, which is the aspiration to spiritually awaken, the desire to live an enlightened life. What we awaken to – is a heartfelt concern for others. We are not alone, despite how alone we can feel. We are deeply connected to each other, to animals and mountains, farmers and caregivers. Bodhicitta is the foundation of compassion.

Our aim to awaken and be of service we must sow, cultivate, reap, harvest. So we train. We practice. Bodhicitta is a conscious act of love. Compassion does not easefully appear – we call it forth.

The main training in Buddhist practice is to stop. To be still and see what is happening in our minds. What is really going on? We meditate and reflect. We pray for wisdom and clarity and peace. We are honest about ourselves to ourselves. We strive not to shrink from our own lack of love. We face our fallibility.

What is training, then?

Returning over and over to our present moment experience, to regain our purpose and uprightness. Then we make the next move. To remember the preciousness of this human life as often as we can. Make it count. When we don’t, we accept the failure and let failure be that which cultivates resilience. I fall down seven times and get up eight. It is the compassionate thing to do.

Karen DeCotis is a Buddhist priest in the Soto Zen tradition. She leads the Bozeman Zen Group and teaches at the Bozeman Dharma Center.