Wednesday, June 30, 2010

meditating on compassion

At various points in my life, I have been very into Buddhism. When I started reading the Bible again, it really struck me how Buddhist teachings and those of Jesus are similar. Emphasis on compassion, love, equality, peace of mind abound. Perhaps the closest resemblance I found was in Matthew 5:43-47:

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in Heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the even and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the publicans so?"

In many Buddhist sects, practitioners undertake compassion meditations. In this meditation, the focus is not on someone they love and care for, to whom they naturally show compassion without effort; no, the focus is on someone you really can't stand, someone you feel you hate or whose actions you despise. The First Noble Truth of Buddhism states that all human beings experience suffering and desire a release from suffering. So practitioners start there.

Try it right now. Think of someone you despise, or that makes you angry. It doesn't have to be someone close to you. It could be a television star you think is gaudy, or a person you used to work with that always irritated you. Take stock of this person's actions without letting your own feelings come into it. What incomprehensible things have they done? (I say "incomprehensible" because the root of all dissonance between two people is misunderstanding. A person is not necessarily "bad" just because you don't understand their actions.) Now, imagine you were this person. Don't think of what you would do- think of yourself doing what they have done, and think of the emotions they would experience in those situations. As you can imagine, with some people this is very difficult. It is one thing to imagine why a wife would cheat on her husband, and entirely another to imagine why a man would kill another man. However, the focus is to "put yourself in their shoes" and see what it would be like to do the things they did, face the consequences they have faced.

This meditation is not an opportunity to make excuses for someone who has done something wrong. It is rather a doorway to understanding. If your child steals a CD from the store, they face the appropriate consequences. But by putting yourself in your child's place, feeling what they felt- fear, exhilaration, a desperate longing for something- then it helps you connect with them in a different way. The meditation is not meant to release people from fault. It is meant, rather, to find compassion for all your fellow men, even the ones you don't understand. Many children, for example, act out because they don't feel that anyone listens or understands them. If their parents could understand and therefore feel compassion for them, it might make a difference in their lives.

A good article to read regarding Tibetan Buddhist views of feeling compassion for enemies is here (scroll down to "How to be compassionate to enemies?")

Jesus was saying the same thing. It is infinitely more difficult to love your enemies than it is your friends. But it is by loving our enemies, treating those who have wronged us with kindness, that we become like our Father in Heaven. We take it for granted that Jesus forgives our sins without a thought. If someone killed your friend, would you forgive them without a thought? Would you show them kindness? Would you put yourself in their shoes?

Matthew, chapter 5 ends with "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." Obviously, no one can be perfect. But by looking at our fellow man as God does to us, we can get closer to Him.

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