Question: In dharma talks, the causes of suffering are often discussed, as is the cessation of suffering. I have been a Buddhist for about eighteen years, and while I feel I have an understanding and acceptance of the causes of personal suffering, I find it difficult to understand the causes of suffering when we suffer for others. Such suffering is not due to ignorance or attachment. It’s raw pain when I see an animal beaten, or a child abused, or prisoners tortured. The suffering of others makes me feel so helpless. How can I accept this?
Narayan Helen Liebenson: How do we make sense of the immense suffering in this world? How do we bear it and help alleviate it without being overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness? These are the most human of questions.
I don’t know that understanding the causes of the suffering of others changes anything for the better. What we do know is that everything happens because of conditions coming together. We can’t know what all of those conditions may be in any given situation, but when it comes to the suffering of others, less analysis and more compassionate action may be the better approach.
Our practice is to see that sometimes situations do seem hopeless, and yet at the same time to summon up the courage and heartfulness to do our best to make them otherwise.
Compassion is caring for and responding to suffering. It is easy to fall into conditioned patterns of reactivity: we withdraw, become indifferent, get stuck in anger or lost in fear, allow a sense of powerlessness to control us. Our practice is to see that sometimes situations do seem hopeless, and yet at the same time to summon up the courage and heartfulness to do our best to make them otherwise.
I remember being surprised when I first learned that the Buddha had defined compassion as “a trembling of the heart” and “a pleasant sense of care.” Until then, I had always thought that compassion meant “to suffer with.” The Buddha’s words helped me to see that being compassionate means being vulnerable and yet very strong. To me, a trembling of the heart means encouraging our hearts to stay open in the face of suffering. And a pleasant sense of care implies confidence and capability, the ability to hold the distress of others in such a way as to be effective in our efforts to help.
Feelings of helplessness and powerlessness are normal and human, and as we come to understand suffering as well as the end of suffering, we tap into the ways in which we are really not helpless at all.
I’m not sure you want to accept the suffering you see around you as much as to try to alleviate it. The fact that you can’t tolerate it points to a tender heart. This tenderness needs to be balanced with a sense of confidence so that you can respond wisely and skillfully, rather than becoming paralyzed and frozen.
Where do we begin? Recognizing and opening to our own pain allows us to open to the pain of others without being overwhelmed. Also, it’s important to remember that the practice is to see not only the agonies that inflict us but the strengths we have as well. In other words, to see that which is not suffering. To know this in oneself allows one to know it in others. Thus we are training ourselves to have faith in the true nature of all beings, not to think of others with pity and a sense of separation.
When we are practicing in this way, something remarkable may happen, at least at times: we may want to stay open to this possibility. When we think of someone like Nelson Mandela, we think of the horrors he experienced as well as how profoundly inspiring he has been. Somehow, he was able to sustain his faith and compassion in the midst of truly terrible conditions, and to come out of these conditions transformed and with great love. Perhaps we all have such untapped capabilities.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman: The pain you speak of when you witness the suffering of others is what we mean when we speak of compassion (“to suffer with”). It is a natural feeling because of the inherent connection of all beings. And what a cruel world we might live in if we did not have the capacity for compassion!
Like the Buddha, you may have been working on this question since you were a child. As a child, he went to watch the spring celebration of the first plowing of the fields to prepare for planting, and during the colorful celebratory festival in which his father ceremoniously made the first furrow, the young Siddhartha noticed that the plow cut through the underground homes of the insects and worms and exposed them to the birds, who then ate them.
Even today, as we consciously make an effort to live a life of no harm, we discover that we cannot literally follow the first precept of not killing. We must either starve ourselves or eat food that has been alive. Even if we are strict vegetarians, the life of living beings can only be supported by food that has itself been alive.
If we add judgment and anger to the situation it can only increase the suffering.
The important work for us, then, is to remain aware of our intrinsic connection with all beings and to continuously cultivate our capacity for the beneficial mental states of loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. How we actually live this precious life we have been given is the most important point. Although we may fervently wish to end all pain in the world, as many before us have wished, the best we may be able to do is not add to it. If we add judgment and anger to the situation it can only increase the suffering.
My latest inspiration for how to live is this quotation attributed to the Dalai Lama: “Every day, think as you wake up: Today I am fortunate to have woken up. I am alive. I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself to expand my heart out to others for the benefit of all beings.”
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: The suffering you feel when experiencing another’s pain does have to do with the root causes of ignorance, attachment, or anger. Suffering is always connected to a sense of self and to attachment. However, the pain that you feel for others can be transformed into the path of liberation. In fact, experiencing the pain of another’s suffering is necessary for the development of compassion, and compassion is necessary for liberation. The cultivation of compassion is based on empathy, or the ability to feel the suffering of others. If you cannot feel the suffering of others, you cannot cultivate compassion.
Rather than simply feeling helpless when you experience the suffering of others, let that moment be an opportunity to cultivate bodhichitta, to rouse the sincere desire to attain liberation from the three poisons in order to truly benefit others. This motivation is no small thing. Even though you may not see how compassion directly affects another’s suffering in an immediate or obvious way, it is always possible that because of compassion something shifts energetically toward the situation. Clearly something shifts in oneself.
Sometimes we are overwhelmed with the amount of suffering we perceive in the world around us and we shut down, contract, or turn away. But it is important to stay openhearted in connection to the suffering we experience. When we allow ourselves to fully experience the sensations and emotions that are present within us when we are touched by others, these very feelings become the doorway to compassion.
We must understand the value and power of compassion and know that feeling pain is itself a great practice.
Compassion arises spontaneously from our open awareness. Feeling our pain directly releases the bondage of helplessness and reveals the pure and open space of being, which is the very source of compassion within us. In this way, instead of perpetuating suffering we become part of the solution. Thinking “I cannot do anything” is a way of solidifying or reinforcing the sense of “I” and “other,” which perpetuates the illusion of duality. We must understand the value and power of compassion and know that feeling pain is itself a great practice. Staying open and aware in the presence of suffering is necessary to the development of compassion.
What begins as pain can arise as compassion and become the path to liberation. Just as a bird needs two wings for flight, the practitioner needs wisdom and compassion for liberation. Wisdom is the fearless recognition of openness in the presence of suffering; compassion is the result of one’s suffering releasing into the clear and open expanse of mind, the mind of this very moment.
Narayan Helen Liebenson is a guiding teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman is former abbess of the San Fransico Zen Center.
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is a lineage holder of the Bön Dzogchen tradition of Tibet.