The other day I had the great opportunity to present the practice of compassion to my students in middle school and high school. We discussed the daring it takes to open the door to others, to just bring other people into our awareness. Beginning with a sense of trust in our beings, we brought to mind other people and animals that we care about and extended a sense of love and well being to them. Then we thought of someone who is suffering– from illness, injury, depression, loss, or just a bad mood– and we extended relief and joy to them. We discussed how common it is for people to avoid thinking of people in suffering–how it’s often seen as depressing or morbid. Turning it around we imagined being in a state of suffering ourselves and how we would feel if the people in our life said, “I don’t want to think about that- it’s depressing.” It was a good session. The students responded well and the atmosphere we created held the process so that there was engagement and respect.
The skills of the heart, kindness and compassion, are feelings, so can’t exactly be taught, but they can be suggested and hinted at. As feelings, they are ephemeral, and can seem weak and naive. If they are to become active principals in shaping our culture, they need to be empowered.
Here is a story about that. Padmasambhava is known as the great tantric master who established Buddhism in Tibet. According to the story, the Tibetan King, Trisong Detsen first invited a wonderful teacher named Shantarakshita from India to establish the spiritual doctrine. Tibet in those days was a wild place, full of fierce people, shamanic traditions, and feral spirits. Shantarakshita, a wise and benevolent monk, supported by the King, established a monastery and taught the wisdom of Buddha, emphasizing kindness and compassion. However, the native forces thwarted his efforts, destroying the monastery each time it was built.
Shantarakshita was no slouch. He knew his stuff and is renowned as one of the greatest masters of the tradition. But by himself, even with his extraordinary training and knowledge, he was unable to tame the negative energies he was up against.
Shantarakshita acknowledged that he needed help. He advised the king to invite the great master, Padmasambhava to come from India. He knew that Padmasambhava had a quality that had been missing, the element of power. Padmasambhava wasn’t just a teacher, he was like a force of nature. He didn’t align himself with any side. He wasn’t even “kind,” he was just real. With great wisdom and magical power he tamed the demonic forces of Tibet and enlisted them into the service of protecting and upholding the teachings. He didn’t merely introduce an alternative possibility into Tibet, he transformed the culture itself so that it could truly embrace and express the principals of compassion.
How can we bring power to our principals, so that they can be known, trusted, and alive, even when we are surrounded by the demonic momentum of prejudice and materialism in our culture? How do we not only teach, but transform?