Journey Into Buddhism
Elizabeth J. Harris
Leaves No. 134
1994 Elizabeth J. Harris
November 1992, David Craig, head of Religious Broadcasting for
the World Service of the BBC, and Rev. Martin Forward, Interfaith
Officer for the Methodist Church in Britain, visited Sri Lanka
to gather material on Buddhism for a series of programmes to
be broadcast in 1993 during a focus on South Asia. I helped
to plan their programme and was also asked to prepare a few
talks for the World Service's daily "Words of Faith" spot --
a four minute pre-recorded broadcast sent out three times each
day. Four talks resulted, broadcast in April and May 1993. Towards
the end of 1993, I was asked for more and six went out in April
and May 1994. Of these ten talks, eight have been selected for
the present Bodhi Leaf: four from the 1994 series (presented
first) and the four from the 1993 series (slightly expanded,
placed after the 1994 talks).
themes of the talks are rooted in my journey, as a Christian,
into Buddhism. In the mid-1980's I felt the need to "let go"
of my own religious conditioning to enter the world of another
faith. It grew from a conviction that people with an interest
in religion should not remain imprisoned within one framework
but should explore others. The choice of Buddhism and Sri Lanka
was a natural one for me. Buddhism's emphasis on meditation
and non-violence touched my own interests as a Christian, and
a visit to Sri Lanka in 1984 had left me with the feeling that
my link with the island was not finished.
originally intended to be in Sri Lanka for one year. One year,
however, became seven and a half, from 1986 until 1993. My aim
throughout was not only to study Buddhism but to practise it.
I did not consider myself involved in "interfaith dialogue"
although I'm sure some perceived my actions in this way. I wanted
to enter Buddhism on its own terms, as a human being rather
than as a Christian. The subjects of all the talks printed here
arise from the personal journey of discovery that resulted.
They draw on conversations with Buddhist friends, travel to
different parts of the country in times of war, the experience
of meditation, and my reading of the Pali texts. Most importantly,
they reflect the concerns which developed as the interests I
brought from Britain encountered Buddhism and Sri Lanka: the
relationship between non-attachment and outgoing compassionate
action; the practical meaning of anatta (no soul) and
its implications; the benefit of sati (mindfulness) for
the individual and society; the resources Buddhism can offer
to those working for social justice and inter-ethnic or inter-religious
harmony; the question of a woman's role in society.
journey into Buddhism was not always an easy one and of course
I could not let go of my Christian conditioning completely,
but it has brought me to a stage when I can say with utter sincerity
that I revere the Buddha and take refuge in his teachings. I
remain a Christian, one who seeks to follow the self-sacrificial
path of Jesus of Nazareth, but I also feel at home in a Buddhist
meditation centre. The talks, I hope, will show that this is
possible. I dedicate them to all the Sri Lankan friends who
have brought me to a deeper understanding of the heart of Buddhism.
Harris June 1994
I told an academic in Sri Lanka that I practised a Buddhist
form of meditation. Flippantly, he asked whether I was able
to levitate. That's not an uncommon reaction. It confuses meditation
with self-induced trance or making the mind a blank, something
that is unrelated to everyday life. But to make such a confusion
is a mistake. True Buddhist meditation is a vigorous form of
mind-training which can transform both thought and action.
the Theravada Buddhist tradition, found in Burma, Sri Lanka,
and Thailand, the practice of mindfulness or "bare attention"
is very important. When sitting in meditation, perhaps noting
the breath as it touches the inside of the nostrils, thoughts
inevitably enter the mind. Usually they relate to oneself in
the past or the future. Recent conversations replay themselves.
Decisions yet to be made thrust themselves forward. Reactions
of dislike to bodily pains arise. And occasionally, images freed
from a deeper level of our being move slowly upwards. When thoughts
and feelings arise in meditation, they are to be simply observed.
They are not to be repressed or pushed aside, but neither are
they to be allowed complete freedom to proliferate. Their arising
and passing is noted without censure or praise.
I first began to meditate I discovered that thoughts and feelings
are fluid, ever changing, often uncontrollable, frequently illogical
and irrational. It was a painful realization, since I had assumed
my mind was under my direct control. But it was also the beginning
of self-knowledge, the beginning of knowing how my mind worked
and the doorway to modifying conditioned and negative patterns
of reaction in my own life.
one meditation centre in Sri Lanka, high in the mountains, surrounded
by tea estates, the first session begins at five in the morning.
I had to get up by candlelight, pull on warm clothes, and cross
the grass to the meditation hall, under a sky often brilliantly
full of stars. One morning, I was gazing at the dark, silvered
beauty of the sky when I heard steps below me. At that moment,
I caught my mind saying, "Go on into the meditation hall so
that they can see you were up first." Normally, I would have
hurried into the hall to show my punctuality, but on that occasion
I noted the thought, recognized the element of competition,
and consciously refused to act on it. I stayed for several more
moments wrapt in the pre-dawn stillness, feeling the cool air
against my skin, and I was certainly not the first to settle
my cushions before the silent, candle-lit image of the Buddha.
And I know it was the practice of sati, of mindfulness,
which made that moment of insight into my own competitive egotism
possible, insight into a childish wish to impress, to be top
of the class.
of this kind is hard work. It has nothing to do with making
the mind a blank, though it can lead to peace and calm when
the racing mind stills and there is only the present moment.
One monk who taught me put it this way: "Meditation is the ultimate
practice of non-violence. Suffering, pain, and feelings of anger
are not suppressed but faced, confronted, and transformed."
one sermon of the Majjhima Nikaya, one of the five sections
within the collection of sermons in the Pali Canon, the Buddha
says to his disciples:
as low-down thieves might carve you limb from limb with a double-handed
saw, yet even then whoever sets his mind at enmity, he, for
this reason, is not a doer of my teaching. This is how you must
train yourselves: neither will my mind become perverted, nor
will I utter an evil speech, but kindly and compassionate will
I dwell, with a mind of friendliness and devoid of hatred."
vividness of this picture has always moved me -- a thief hacking
off my arms and legs with a saw. And it isn't that far-fetched.
War involves such butchery. The denial of human rights under
totalitarian regimes produces similar horror, and so does the
obsessional urge of a multiple murderer. Fear, terror, or violent
retaliation in self-protection would seem the natural reactions
to such an attack, the reaction programmed into our bodies.
the challenge of Buddhism here is: do not retaliate, do not
hate; show compassion to all people even if they are about to
kill you. It is a challenge which reaches out from other religions
also. Jesus of Palestine, suffering the agony of being nailed
through his flesh to rough wooden posts, forgave his killers
and felt compassion for them in their blindness.
does this imply that Buddhism advocates that we should never
protect ourselves or others from violence, that we should submit
to whatever exploitation we are subjected to, that in the face
of evil forces we should remain passive? To answer "yes" is
to misread Buddhism and all true religion. Buddhism does not
support passivity in the face of violence and evil. Rather,
it encourages a mental attitude which can face and oppose violence
without fear or hatred.
in the Buddhist texts is it suggested that we should remain
inactive when others are suffering. Nowhere does it say we should
refrain from action if someone is murdering our son, daughter,
neighbour, or colleague in front of our eyes. In such situations,
suffering must be relieved, violence must be denounced, self-sacrifice
might even be demanded, though the Buddhist texts also warn
that to meet violence with violence brings a spiral of further
violence. What the Buddhist texts do say is that to hate, to
feel anger towards the doer of violence, is self-defeating.
It harms the hater more than the hated.
the ancient Buddhist texts, we come across many stories of non-hatred
deflecting violence and making it powerless. One woman, because
she refuses to feel hatred, is unharmed when burning oil is
poured over her by a jealous co-wife. And when a monk dies of
snakebite, the Buddha says he would not have died if he had
radiated loving kindness to the world of snakes. This might
seem utopian in a world shot through with violence. The sceptic
could point to the deaths of Gandhi in India, Oscar Romero in
El Salvador, and Michael Rodrigo in Sri Lanka to show that the
most compassionate of beings have been unable to escape violent
deaths caused by the greed and hatred of others.
the force of these religious teachings will remain. Violence
is not overcome by violence. Hatred is not defeated by hatred.
Our lives are not made more secure by wishing to protect them.
To face death without hatred or fear, even towards our killers,
is the path of sainthood. These are eternal truths.
of Theravada Buddhism once asked me, "Why is it assumed, at
all the interfaith gatherings I attend, that God is the uniting
factor among the religions? We should be concentrating on humanity
rather than divinity."
it is taken for granted that all people of faith worship a Supreme
Creator and Sustainer God, Buddhists and Jains are excluded.
Although Buddhists believe that there are gods living in heavens,
they do not ascribe creative power to them, nor do they believe
that these gods have any influence over ultimate human liberation.
in God cannot, therefore, provide common ground between Buddhists
and religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. But
can common ground be found in what religions say about humanity
or about how we can work for a humane society? I believe the
answer is "yes." Buddhism speaks of four brahmaviharas,
or "divine abidings," and these qualities permeate the whole
of Buddhist teaching. They are metta -- loving kindness;
karuna -- compassion; mudita -- sympathetic joy;
and upekkha -- equanimity.
is boundless loving kindness radiated to all beings -- to friends
and enemies, the known and the unknown, the lovely and the unlovely.
It is an action-changing mental orientation. Karuna is
seen where people are so sensitive to the sufferings of others
that they cannot rest until they act to relieve that suffering.
To a greater degree than metta, karuna involves
action. Mudita is a quality which challenges me greatly.
To show mudita is to show joy in the success of others,
to be free from jealousy or bitterness, to celebrate happiness
and achievement in others even when we are facing tragedy ourselves.
for upekkha, equanimity, this has often been misunderstood
as indifference, as apathy in the face of human pain, the very
antithesis of compassion. But upekkha is really freedom
from the self-centredness which clouds understanding and destroys
true discernment. People with upekkha are not pulled
this way and that by emotional reactions that have more to do
with the ego than with true concern for others. They can see
right from wrong and can act with wisdom.
brahmaviharas speak to me of the ideals that should direct
our lives -- the ideals that can create the kind of society
any truly religious person yearns for. Such a society would
be one where loving kindness and compassion triumph over greed,
where the success of one person does not mean the demeaning
or exploitation of others, where rulers are guided by clear
principles of right and wrong rather than hunger for praise
or power. These "divine abidings" give a picture of the truly
good. They touch the hope of all religions and can bring unity
of purpose independent of a concept of God.
let compassion for the good of humanity be at the forefront
of religious encounters. May those who come from the monotheistic
traditions discover that they can share their hopes for a righteous
society with their Buddhist neighbours. May Buddhists find themselves
united with their Jewish, Christian, and Muslim friends in working
for a world where loving kindness takes the place of greed.
In May 1991 I travelled from war-torn Jaffna in northern
Sri Lanka to the South. It was at Vesak, the time when Buddhists
celebrate three major events in the life of their Master: his
birth, his awakening into Buddhahood, and his passing away into
final Nibbana. It was like moving from one world into another.
In the North, the tension was palpable -- towns gutted by fighting,
vast stretches of empty roads, people with hardship in their
eyes. But as we crossed over into the South, there was celebration.
Groups of boys flagged down our car to thrust fruit drinks into
our hands. Lanterns of wire and coloured paper hung in porches
with their streamers flowing in the breeze. And nearer Colombo
came the first of the pandals -- massive, temporary structures
by the road, brilliantly lit, telling in pictures Buddhist stories
of how self-sacrifice triumphs over violence, how compassion
is the most important religious festival of the Buddhist year.
It is marked by light, pilgrimage, and the re-telling of stories.
At its heart is remembrance of the Buddha's solitary striving
in meditation under a tree near Gaya in India 2500 years ago.
serene face of the Buddha image can give the impression that
this striving led to an experience of the metaphysical. But
Prince Siddhattha became the Buddha not because he was lifted
beyond the world but because he saw the real nature of the world.
It had been his sensitivity to human suffering that had made
him leave his wife and son years before. He had wanted an answer
to the question: Why? Why was life shot through with the pain
of illness, bereavement, and unrealized longings? At Bodhgaya,
he found it. He saw that humans were bound to anguish-filled
lives because their interpretation of the world was wrong. He
saw that our fault was to believe that our lives, our possessions,
and our hopes are centred around an unchanging self which has
to be protected and promoted. He saw that only suffering was
the result, fuelled by the greeds and hatreds flowing from selfish
formations are impermanent," is what the Buddha understood.
Self-centred clinging, he realized, was the fruit of delusion.
With this came liberation. The prison of selfhood evaporated.
Raga and dosa, greed and hatred, were destroyed.
Boundless compassion was released and he could teach the world
that suffering has a cause and can be eradicated.
Vesak Buddhists celebrate this knowledge that suffering can
be ended, that within the pain of life there is hope. In 1991
and today in 1994, that celebration takes place against the
backdrop of war, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere -- war caused by
interlocking structures of injustice, rooted in human greed
and human illusion, throwing the innocent before the barrel
of a gun or under the rubble of a shelled building. My hope
is that the Buddha's message will not only be heard but acted
upon. All war and conflict can be traced back to some form of
craving or delusion. It may be craving for power, or domination
by an individual or group, or the delusion which flows from
distorted history or myth. Vesak should call us to analyze the
causes of our bloodletting, to see where craving and greed cloud
objectivity and prevent peace.
goes that the Buddha was at first loathe to share with others
what he had learnt because so few would understand its hard
but liberating message. Our fortune is that he did share it.
The health of our world depends on whether we act on that message.
Self in Buddhism and Christianity
Pada, in Sri Lanka, is over 7,000 feet high and has been a place
of pilgrimage for centuries. At the summit is a huge footprint,
claimed variously to be that of the Buddha, Adam, and Lord Shiva.
From December to May is the pilgrimage season. Each night during
this season, thousands of devotees climb up an illuminated,
lengthy ascent of steps. From a distance, the dark shape seems
to have a diamond necklace thrown down its side. Sometimes the
crowd is so large that pilgrims have to pause at each step they
climb. The pressure on the leg muscles is incredible. An elderly
Buddhist friend of mine climbed on such a night. She told me
that the only way she could force her legs through the ordeal
was to say of the pain, "This is not mine, this is not me."
says the same in her meditation practice, and I have learnt
to do so too. When sitting in absolute stillness, irritations
come, mosquitoes bite, pain from the knees shoots up, the strong
urge to relieve itchy skin arises. But it is possible to conquer
the wish to move or scratch by seeing the pain simply as pain
and not as belonging to an "I." The pain becomes an object for
meditation. It becomes a process that can be observed. This
snaps the thread of our usual response to irritation, which
is to claim it as ours and to seek to be rid of it. And
it can also train the mind to detect and halt negative reactions
to other forms of attack on our persons in everyday life.
this touches on anatta, the Buddhist concept of no-self
or no-soul. Anatta was seized on by nineteenth century
Christian missionaries to Sri Lanka as something which proved
Buddhism was absolutely nihilistic. For instance, Rev. Thomas
Moscrop, a Methodist missionary, claimed in 1889 that Buddhism
"is too pessimistic, too cold, too antagonistic to the constitution
of human nature to take the world captive" (The Ceylon Friend,
16 October 1889). But I have not found nihilism in what Buddhists
have said to me about anatta. Some years ago, one friend
said, "If there is no belief in self, there is no worry; there
is no reason to become angry or hurt." To her, the idea was
liberating. It was freedom from being tied to self-promotion
can remember how deeply her words challenged me. They helped
me to see that Buddhism and Christianity are not in opposition
here. The frameworks are different but the practical path towards
human liberation touches both. Both religions speak about a
wrong concept of the self. Buddhism says: Don't think you are
fixed, unchanging. You are forever flowing, shifting, interconnected
with the whole cosmos. Free yourself from clinging to the idea
that you are separate and have to fight against the world to
keep your identity intact. Christianity also has something radical
to say. The Methodists, a Christian denomination which arose
in eighteenth century England, have a Covenant Service on the
first Sunday of each new year in which they pledge obedience
to God. At one point they say, "I am no longer my own but thine."
Saint Paul, in his letters to new churches, speaks of having
lost his old self. To the Christians of Colossae in Greece,
he says, "For you have died and your life is hid with Christ
in God" (Colossians 3:3). All of these sayings point to a death
of the egotistical self and a loss of self-sufficiency and self-worship.
Buddhism and Christianity say that the self which insists on
its separateness from the rest of life is doomed. Buddhism says
that such a self has no objective existence as an unchanging
entity. Christianity says the self has to die to give way to
a higher power of love. Both point to the liberation that comes
when we transcend care for self, when we refuse to exert protective
ownership over our lives and persons. I have certainly found
that if we do not cling to pain, hurt, and fear as ours
but accept them as part of the changing flux of existence, if
we do not seek to protect our identity and safety at all costs,
we will be able to climb more than Adam's Peak. We are liberated
into a new way of seeing and a new openness to the ever-changing
process of existence.
missionary in Sri Lanka once said to me with great sincerity,
"The Buddha image speaks to me of coldness, of non-involvement,
of a turning away from life. I prefer the image of Jesus Christ
with his robes dirty with the sweat of the poor."
stereotype of Buddhism is that it supports a withdrawal from
the suffering of the world, a renunciation of active involvement
with society. An inter-religious conference I attended a few
years ago stays in my mind because one of the western participants
insisted that outward-moving compassion was not an important
part of Buddhism. My encounter with Buddhism forces me to challenge
this stereotype. I did so at that conference and I continue
to do so. It is outsiders -- European observers and those seeking
an escape from the world -- who have projected onto Buddhism
the encouragement of indifference to the agony within human
life. It does not rise from within. Buddhism certainly speaks
of destruction, renunciation, and detachment, but it is detachment
from all those things which prevent compassion from flowing
-- from possessiveness, competitiveness, and selfishness. Viraga,
one of the Pali words translated as detachment, actually means
"without raga" -- without lust, without possessive craving
-- not without concern for our world.
I told a Buddhist monk here in Sri Lanka of my experience at
that inter-religious conference, he simply said, "Without compassion,
there can be no Buddhism." And that compassion is an active
one. Buddhaghosa, the great fifth century commentator who came
from India to work in Sri Lanka, gives several meanings to the
Buddhist concept of compassion. He writes: "When there is suffering
in others it causes good people's hearts to be moved, thus it
is compassion. Or alternatively, it combats others' suffering
and demolishes it, thus it is compassion. Or alternatively,
it is scattered upon those who suffer, or extended to them by
pervasion, thus it is compassion" (The Path of Purification
(Visuddhimagga), translated by Bhikkhu ¥anamoli,
BPS 1975, IX, 92). To extend compassion to others in meditation
is certainly part of Buddhist practice, but so too is the effort
to combat and demolish suffering. To combat suffering involves
more than refraining from doing harm. It implies action to liberate
others both from social forces which dehumanize and from imprisoning
thought patterns which hinder wholeness and the living of a
religious life. Such action is seen in the life of the Buddha
and in the lives of all truly enlightened ones.
me, the picture of Jesus Christ with his clothes marked with
the suffering of the poor and the image of the Buddha do not
contradict one another. They are not in conflict or competition.
Compassion unites them. Jesus stretched his hands out to the
poor and those despised in his society, taking into himself
the world's evil. The Buddha, out of compassion for humans caught
in the pain and suffering of existence, left his wife and son
to seek a path of liberation for all.
Polonnaruwa, one of the ancient, now ruined, capitals of Sri
Lanka, there is a rock temple, the Gal Vihara, where three massive
images are formed out of the stone. Two are of the Buddha. Peace
seems to radiate from them and has done so for over 800 years.
Yet it is not the peace of indifference or apathy. It is the
peace of wisdom and compassion, which arises when the heart-rending
nature of human violence and human greed is fully realized.
It is not an anguished, twisted scream of torture at the nature
of the world's inhumanity, but a silent, gentle embodiment in
stone of empathy, compassion, and strength. In front of these
very images, Thomas Merton, an American Christian monk of this
century whose religious journey brought him very close to Buddhism,
was urged to write, "The rock, all matter, is charged with dharmakaya
... everything is emptiness and everything is compassion."
Buddha image speaks to me, therefore, both of the wisdom which
sees into the causes of human suffering and also of the compassion
which lies at the very heart of true enlightenment. And it stirs
me to try to do something to demolish some of the pain of our
Buddhism and Social Justice
such humans, brethren, there will arise a sword period of seven
days during which they will look on each other as wild beasts;
sharp swords will appear ready to their hands, and they thinking,
"This is a wild beast," will with their swords deprive each
other of life.
words from the Pali Canon come towards the end of the Cakkavatti
Sihanada Sutta of the Digha Nikaya. Here the Buddha describes
the process whereby a society slides into a state of absolute
anarchy and violence, reaching the point where all respect for
the preciousness of human life is lost and humans kill each
other without guilt or remorse. Stealing appears first, then
murder; false speech and sexual promiscuity follow. Religion
is undermined; respect for elders disintegrates; human life
loses its worth. It is a horrifying picture of growing bestiality
that is as relevant today as it was when first spoken.
I first met Buddhism, an important question for me was what
Buddhism had to say about the problems of violence and injustice,
problems which affect every nation. The classic formula at the
heart of Buddhism is that it is tanha, craving, which
lies at the root of the world's misery. Often this is seen in
a very individualistic way. The Buddhist path is held up as
an escape route from suffering through withdrawal from society
and through mental culture. I do not downplay this emphasis.
The importance of mind-training was central to the Buddha's
teaching. It holds the key to the liberating insight that can
transform human life. Yet I have found that individual psychological
factors are not the only ones emphasized in the Buddhist texts.
The texts do give pictures for anyone concerned with
justice and harmony within the body of society.
the text I started with, the chain of causality which results
in bestiality goes back to the State, the king, who forgets
one of the duties ascribed to a just ruler in Buddhism. It is
this: "And whosoever in thy kingdom is poor, to him let wealth
be given." By overlooking this, the king denied the poor a living,
and from this -- a refusal to create economic justice -- flows
stealing, murder, lying, immorality, and bestiality. What I
find interesting is that the accusing finger is pointed at the
structures of power and not at evil qualities in the ordinary
people. And the message is: violence and social breakdown are
inevitable if people are denied the means to live with dignity.
To use a Christian term, the poor in the myth are "sinned against"
by their ruler. They are victims of structural injustice and
their urge to survive corrupts the whole fabric of society.
story within the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta, however,
does not end with the sword period. When the depths of brutality
have been reached, there are some who see the enormity of their
fall from humane values. They go into retreat -- into caves,
jungle dens, and caverned tree trunks -- and emerge to embrace
one another and to restore harmony through the recovery of moral
sense. A deterioration from the state downwards is transformed
into a regeneration from the bottom upwards, through the will
and discernment of the people themselves.
message of this sutta challenges all those who see religion
purely in individualistic terms. It demonstrates Buddhism's
very real concern for social justice and also the stress it
places on analyzing the root causes of disharmony and violence.
It presents society as a net of interacting, interdependent
beings who are helped or hindered from living wholesome lives
by the forces which flow from the state or world structures.
In Sri Lanka, I have met groups seeking to find elements in
Buddhism relevant to social issues. This mythological story
is one of them. It can be a resource to all of us. It urges
us to look at the society in which we live critically and to
ask, "Is there a deterioration of human values?" If so, we must
ask further, "Does our society create the conditions in which
each person can live with dignity?" If it does not, then Buddhism
encourages not only a path of individual mental culture but
also the kind of social involvement which recognizes the ability
of ordinary people to change their situation and which seeks
to struggle for a more just world where none is denied resources
is a place of pilgrimage in the south of Sri Lanka, holy to
both Buddhists and Hindus. In 1989, I went to their annual festival.
On the final night, as elephants, drummers, and dancers were
slowly and gracefully moving along the path between the shrine
to Lord Kataragama and the Kiri Vehera, the Buddhist temple,
with its milk-white dagoba, two powerful grenades were
lobbed into the crowd, made up mainly of poor villagers but
containing one political dignitary. About fifteen people were
killed and many more were injured, especially in the rush to
escape the sacred area. It was the time when the JVP, the People's
Liberation Front, was attempting to seize political power through
the gun and the death threat.
Kataragama, religious devotion was shattered by blood in a pattern
not unfamiliar in Sri Lanka. Both Hindus and Muslims have also
been attacked when worshipping. Political concerns and religion
have touched. In this context, the inter-religious encounter
that I began in 1986 as a student of Buddhism in Sri Lanka,
also became a journey into suffering and painful political reality,
which included the violent death of friends and sharing the
fear of those who were threatened. An important question for
me at this time was how to cope with the suffering around me
without being destroyed, how to empathize with others and deal
with my own fear for the safety of dear ones.
any situation of violence or war, there is a choice to be made
-- to become vulnerable to the pain involved or to raise defences
against it in a refusal to recognize its existence. Many raise
defences because such a path seems easier. For to become vulnerable
is to let go of control -- the control we place on our feelings
when we repress them or fight them. And such a loss can be frightening.
I found myself choosing vulnerability in Sri Lanka. I chose
to look violence in the face. I chose to see its horror and
to recognize the fear and pain it brings rather than to push
these things from my consciousness.
experience would not have been bearable if not for an encounter
with compassion. For it was when I became aware, in my whole
being rather than only at the level of the intellect, that what
I was feeling was the pain of a nation, a world, rather than
simply my own pain, that I was able to cope with it. It was
the realization of interconnectedness -- that we are woven one
with another -- an insight central to Buddhism. I saw that there
is a common core of suffering in life which links us together
so that to become vulnerable is inevitably to become aware not
only of one's own pain but also of that of others. When I had
reached this point of insight, compassion came like a gift and
I learnt that it could destroy bitterness and paralysis. Behind
pain lies compassion -- compassion for all beings caught up
in the violence of existence.
was at this time that I wrote the following words, disturbed
by the number of people who seemed undisturbed by the fact that
Sri Lanka had become a killing field:
eyes no longer cloud in grief The sword no longer twists in
our own heart Moans on the wind no longer weaken our limbs For
we have grown accustomed, tamed Our vulnerability encased in
self-erected stone. Do we need to relearn how to feel? How to
chip away what we ourselves have built To sense again the rising
of agony, the breaking of control As drops of blood become a
river And tears merge with its bitter flow. Is this asking too
much? That we should so open our bodies to pain To the shadowy
part of our deeper selves Where the hurt and joy of a cosmos
lie And compassion, like a fertile seed, awaits to grow?
feel we must open ourselves up. We must recognize the suffering
which lies at the heart of existence and then let compassion
arise and strengthen us to struggle against all that dehumanizes.