Compassion in Buddhism is not ‘being a good person’

After a recent email discussion with my Zen master, I’d like to share a very difficult learning about a very subtle thing.

It has been a knot on the path for me, and has come up in many different forms, but the most recent one has been the most powerful. In sharing it, I hope to step through it and on to greater things, and also hope that the sharing of it may help others too.

The question of whether we have many lives does appear in Buddhism, and the different strands have their own way of responding. In Zen we usually prefer to talk about reincarnation as something which happens many times in one life time; every time you ‘wake up’ again to the here and now – the suchness of reality beyond individual thought, and into the power of the One consciousness in everything. Invariably this happens many times – sometimes many times in one day.

That said, the best words I can use to find what I’ve experienced these last few weeks is that I’ve remembered something very deep. I can see why the Tibetans talk in terms of taking many life times to work through karmic cycles. It’s this. I chose to come to earth at the specific time and place that I did for a reason. That reason is because it is a time of a great shift in human culture – a shift which is beginning to become more apparent now, and less the conversational preserve of weirdo’s, drug users, and marginalised others (druids, shamans, native peoples) alone.

But why did I come? I came because I wanted to help. Wanting to help has always been a very powerful energy for me. I’m mostly aware these days of the psychological reasons for that urge to be there. But having explored those, I’m becoming aware that there may be other reasons – earlier reasons. Reasons from a previous lifetime even, to want to help.

And this has borne itself out in all sorts of ways. Sometimes I really have helped and, I think, made the lives of some others better. I’ve even helped to save a few lives.

Other times I have thought I’d helped, but have really just imposed my own wants and needs on to others.

That latter point is difficult enough to discover, and not learned by many for a long time. But there is an even subtler layer to all this. Even when I act (as an agent of change) and I think I am doing good – I may not be doing good at all. The suffering in another which I believe to be removing for them could well have been a positive energy at work helping that other achieve a higher stage of self-realization, and my work has only served to starve them of it and put the lesson (which will repeat) off for them a little longer.

Compassion, in Buddhism, is not ‘being a good person’. Zen Buddhists (who take inspiration from Buddha, Dogen, and Taoism alike) would point here to the lesson of the tao (pronounced ‘dao’), symbolised in yin and yang. All the time I am “intending good” I am coming from my small self, my ego, and really just caught up in whatever is the “doing bad” I can see – wherever that is coming from. And doing so gives more energy to that “doing bad”.

Buddha’s way is equanimity. Seeing all things from a still, dispassionate, unjudgemental place within. A place which does not discern dualistically between good and bad, right and wrong. To reach that equanimity requires dying to the small self, the ego, and extinguishing the flames of the three poisons (anger, greed, ignorance) again and again until my good and bad karma eventually reach a balancing place and I am caught up in neither, but free to be a pure spiritual being having a rich human experience.

This also is not something to “try to do”, like trying to be good. It can only happen through practice, effort, time, and patience; the karmic storehouse.

This is Buddha’s idea of heaven on earth. The bodhisattva vow. However innumerable are all beings I vow to save all of them from my own suffering caused by illusion, anger, and greed, for that is all I can do and the best thing I can do. Peace on earth, starting with me.

This is a million miles away from the heaven on earth people of good will are “willing” to make happen. It pains me to see that in Buddhism’s encounter with Western culture (now roughly two to three generations in, so still very new), many people are (just like I’ve been doing) confusing ‘compassion’ and ‘service’ with ‘doing good’, which requires attachment to a fixed idea of a self who does the doing – a self who knows better. An ego.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a zen master, coined the phrase, ‘engaged Buddhism’. But if you read his teachings closely you’ll see that when asked to explain what he means by that phrase, he just means Buddhism with great commitment; perhaps in response to the energy of consumer individualism, of religion shopping, that he won’t have seen in his native Vietnam so starkly.

In his latest book, The World We Have, he gives an urgent call to action, but his reasoning is very finely balanced. He reasons that to not take action on climate change is to lose this round of human civilisation, and possibly dharma attainment along with it. Attainment of the dharma is such a rare thing that it is worth trying to protect from loss, and so  a time has come to get more “activist”. But not for any cause; only certain causes. And even then he draws us back to the essential task at hand. ‘if you want to help the environment, you must help the environmentalist’ (meaning yourself).

But people have jumped onto ‘engaged Buddhism’ from this eminent figure to support their own ideas (probably hangovers from earlier interactions with Christianity) of why Buddhism is good, why Buddhists are good, why I must do good things.

And none of these ideas are Buddha’s Way.

We have to let go of them. We have to let go of wanting to be a good person. A person who does good things.

Eckhart Tolle says that the world gives us exactly the kinds of suffering we need to wake up.

Buddha never spoke about shielding others from suffering and pain. He only showed us how to find a Way out of our own cycles, snares, traps, programming (if you will), and into life lived just as naturally and beautifully as it really is – without any layers of drama or illusion at all. And in that beautiful place, things happen. It’s like the universe opening up like a flower in the morning sunlight, and doing this deep within your heart.

It’s OK that there is no Buddhist Red Cross when there isn’t. It’s OK that there is no Buddhist soup kitchen when there isn’t. The measure of the suffering and pain each of us faces is in balance with the amount of anger, greed, and ignorance we have because this is how the universe is guiding us into ever higher forms of being. When there is no anger, greed, or ignorance left, neither will there be pain and suffering – whether caused to ourselves or by others however far away.

This does not mean that Buddhists should never do good acts. Neither does it rubbish all the Buddhist talk of ‘compassion’. When compassion arises in a moment and in the space between the Buddhist and the object or subject, it arises, something changes, and then it goes away again. Good acts can arise in the same way, without duality, and without a self who does the good. But this is not a self who does good, nor a self who is a compassionate human being and hence a wonderful Buddhist.

Surrendering to the divine will (if that’s your language), when there is no self left to do the surrendering, and no dualism between a body-mind in space-time and the eternal life source before and beyond and sustaining all time, space, and movement goes beyond surrender, beyond intention, beyond interior experience, beyond will, beyond me, beyond ego, beyond self. It comes, and it goes.

Here is to not being a good person any more.

We are all awakening as One.


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