Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on January 4, 2015

On this cold and snowy morning here in Northern Michigan, some considerations on compassion.

Compassion may start out for many of us as simply sadness at the hopelessness in the world. For me, it began when as a young kid I observed the pathos of nature. It is everywhere. Even today, walking along a country road as the hot summer sun comes up, and observing the countless earthworms trying to cross the road, I see that they are doomed by their decision to cross at this particular time. I can only pick up so many and carry them across. I feel compassion for them. And, as for the worms crawling in the direction the road runs, well…

The etymology of the English word "compassion" comes from an Old French word that means to "suffer with," sometimes translated as "to love together with." I am told that the French came from the original Latin "passus," and before that I imagine the Greek "pathos," and so on. I get the idea.

Sympathy can beget empathy, which can give way to compassion. "Pity" seems to be just a selfish form of compassion. "Selfish" means it's the "Self's idea of compassion.

Even though I am writing about compassion here with words, true compassion, essentially, is beyond words. Like everything else, it has to be an experience that we define for ourselves by living.

Growing up, I was told to be compassionate and to practice compassion. I had no idea what they were talking about. To me, "practicing compassion" is just another oxymoronic phrase, because the two words, "practice" and "compassion" don't go together. "Trying to be compassionate" is just trying, another trial. Discovering that we are by nature compassionate is what has to happen.

Compassion is said to be the antidote (and opposite) of the self-chosen poison of "anger." It is reportedly said by the Buddha himself that we can search the entire world for someone more worthy of compassion than ourselves and never find them. That is worth considering. Compassion starts at home.

Having compassion for ourselves in my experience is synonymous with discovering that we each are, at heart, deeply compassionate. We just have not yet admitted it, unless we have. In my experience, the admission of compassion within myself is where my true dharma practice began. And there is a story.

I first learned this (at the heart level) from His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, when I first met him high in the mountains of Tibet at his ancestral home, at some 15,000 feet of altitude or so.

I had met renowned yogis and "spiritual" beings before and was often in awe of their power, even intimidated, so I was prepared to be tremendously impressed by the young Karmapa. But it wasn't like that at all. Instead, when I first met the Karmapa, it never occurred to me how powerful he was, because in his presence I only realized one thing, and that was that at heart, I mean at the very deepest level, I was a deeply compassionate being. Who would have guessed that? Certainly not me.

Yes, beneath all that crusty hard-edged Michael was this profoundly compassionate being. The Karmapa's power was something beyond drawing my attention to him or how powerful he was; quite the opposite. Instead in his presence he caused me to realize my own essential nature, that at the core I was in fact compassionate beyond my imagination.

In other words, in the presence of the Karmapa, I did not realize who he was, but only who I was, and that was something I never expected. And that is how we find a life teacher, someone through whom we discover our own true nature, not theirs.

At the time the young Karmapa was 12 years old.

[Here is a drawing by my very dear friend Sange Wangchug, who lived with us at our center for a number of years and taught me Tibetan astrology. He is now the cultural minister of Bhutan. Aside from being an incredible artist, he speaks seven languages. Sange is also known for his singing of the songs of the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa, which reminds me of this story.

When it came time for Sange and his wife Tseten to leave us and return to their country, we had a goodbye party with Sange, his wife, and Margaret and myself. We asked Sange to sing for us one of the songs of Milarepa. He said he would, but wanted the rest of us to sing a song too. We agreed, and so we did. Sange, of course, sang beautifuly, while Margaret and I did the best we could. Then Sange's wife Tseten's turn came, and she also sang. We had not considered her much as a singer, because, well, that was Sange's forte.

To our amazement she sang a song in Tibetan that struck to the heart and had all of us crying. Ya' never know.]