Noble Heart of All Existence

Compassion is not a path that is taken because it leads somewhere else. Everything that we encounter, all that we experience, is this path.

Douglas Penick
1 September 2000
A man giving a homeless person some spare change.
Compassion. Photo by Aaron Alexander.

“Compassion is not a path that is taken because it leads somewhere else. Everything  that we encounter, all that we experience,  is this path.”

“You see, I have made a great discovery: I no longer believe in any thing. Objects don’t exist for me except insofar as a relationship exists between them or between them and myself. When one realizes this harmony, one reaches a sort of intellectual non-existence—what I can only describe as a sense of peace—which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation.”
—Georges Braque

Throughout most of human history, people lived in small communities among people with whom they had life-long associations and intimacy. Plagues, mass starvation, warfare, the destruction of whole civilizations—all these events passed by unknown to those who were remote from them.

Today we live in transient groupings among people we have met only recently, if at all. However, we are constantly and instantly aware of myriad forms of suffering wherever they occur on the globe. Daily we see the faces of the casualties of war, the wracked and wasted bodies of the starving, the cries and tears of the murder victim’s family. These images of suffering around the world are more familiar to us than even the gravest difficulties of our neighbors.

So increasingly, as our own condition is more isolated and the face of distant suffering becomes more intimate, we feel our own powerlessness. Our spontaneous longing to relieve the pain of even one of the people we see on television or in the newspapers becomes an experience of bitter frustration.

In time, our powerless becomes a jaded apathy, and then a kind of weary resentment. So we look for ways to distance ourselves from the pain and suffering of which we are made aware. We come to see the victims as members of a mindlessly aggressive society, or of a culture irretrievably attached to faulty agricultural methods, or of an ethnic group that simply won’t sustain normal family patterns.

We live with a feeling of powerlessness to offer any meaningful assistance or solace in the face of such large scale suffering. Surrounded by unchangeable horrors, we feel burdened by and resentful of our own innate sympathy. In such circumstances, the experience of compassion as real and available becomes deformed, and confidence in the power of compassion fades.

In ordinary usage, according to the OED, “compassion” means, first, “suffering together with another, participation in suffering; fellow feeling, sympathy,” and secondly, “the feeling or emotion as moved by the distress of another and the desire to relieve it.” However, Buddhism understands compassion as something far more extensive than merely a feeling or emotion, with all the itinerant qualities which those words imply.

In the vajrayana Buddhist tradition of Tibet, it is maintained that the complete and entire basis of our life in this world is compassion. According to this view:

In the infinite expanse of the natural state
Free from the limits of conceptual mind,
All the realms of life and death and their inhabitants
Arise spontaneously from the radiance of Great Compassion.

In Tibetan, the word for compassion, nyingje, means “noble heart,” and this refers not simply to one’s own heart but to the heart of the world as well. It is called “heart” because compassion is at the core of all our responses to external and internal phenomena. It is the basis of why our minds always move outside ourselves, why our perceptions lead us out into the world of phenomena, and so why we are spontaneously moved by the sight of beauty and suffering, the smell of early spring or rotting garbage, the memory of the taste of lemonade, the sound of thunder in the afternoon.

Compassion, as mind’s innate movement outward, is the underlying momentum of our emotional and perceptual experience. If we examine even our most self-absorbed thought, we always find it is prompted by the vivid awareness of something outside ourselves. Even when we are concerned with pain in our own body, that pain is somehow viewed as “other,” as something alien to our “real” self. In fact, no matter what the emotional twist, all our thoughts begin with the sense of “other.” So, at the core, our heart places others before ourselves. Thus, because our mind is naturally inclined to concern with others, it is called “noble.”

At the center of all our mental functioning then, as the natural basis of all our instincts, impulses, and more elaborated motivations, is this primal awareness of other, this “noble heart.”

In Tibetan Buddhist traditions, there are three aspects to the experience of compassion. There is compassion which has no reference point, which is free, omnipresent, ever-expanding and continuous. There is compassion which is occasioned by awareness of the causes of suffering. And there is compassion occasioned by awareness of the specific suffering and pain of others.

When, even for a moment, we let our hearts open to the simplicity of the elements themselves and the long history of concerns of those who have preceded us, we may glimpse the limitless compassion which is itself free from concepts or views of any kind.

In any given instant, no matter what our own individual suffering, if we sit still and look around us it is evident that we are always the recipients of an infinite array of man-made and natural phenomena. We have the solidity of earth within and below our bodies; we have the cooling clarity of water; we have the warmth of fire and the movement of wind; we have an infinity of space articulated as sky or imagination. We have the perceptions of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell, all as vivid as a shimmering rainbow of light. We have unending primordial awareness. And through all the realms of life and death, there is the ceaseless pulse of life force.

We have no existence apart from this array, nor are we independent from the ways of thinking, feeling and knowing about our world which have been developed by countless others before us. We carry out our daily lives in reliance on language evolved and wisdom discovered by others; inspiration fostered by others; laws enacted by others; information, opinions and expressions derived from others; art created by others; technologies created by others; machines and houses made by others; energy produced by others, and food grown by others. There has never been a minute in our lives in which we have not relied on the efforts of many other people.

Further, it is not possible to act in such a way that others are not influenced or affected. Even our most private thoughts and feelings inevitably influence our moods and our behavior. Sadness hangs in the air; private irritation turns into a more general atmosphere of tension; enthusiasm is infectious. However we are stirred up moves the air around us and touches even strangers. When we see a dog stretch in the sun, an old man stumble, a child lose her temper or lovers touch, we too are moved and we carry that movement into whatever comes next.

Thus, regardless of whether we are kind or ruthless, selfish or generous, we live in an immeasurable ocean of phenomena that arise from our interdependence with an inconceivable range of other phenomena. We might wish to have individual autonomy and to be independent of the world we find ourselves in, but this is not in any way realistic.

When we open our hearts and rest in the free expanse of what is given in our lives, we meet the vast mind of primordial compassion which goes far beyond any individual preoccupation, belief or fear. All our unique and individual efforts are simply part of this endless and anonymous outpouring. We sense our unconditional linkage with this world and with all who dwell and have dwelt here. Complete openness in this way is the experience of compassion without reference point.

Even as the expanse of great compassion is without limit or bias, the experience of it is not necessarily comforting. Though we may recognize that we are completely reliant on this world and its history, the world will not necessarily confirm us, give us what we want, or bring everything we have striven for to a successful conclusion. Even though we may find ourselves unaccountably happy in unsought moments, still we may not be able to find meaningful work, make those who love us happy, or keep our children safe. Except momentarily, we will not be saved from death, nor will we be able to save anyone else from death.

While we sometimes experience the vastness and variety of the world we live in, more frequently we experience it as the fear, claustrophobia and frustration of living. We feel utterly adrift in chartless space. We feel trapped, burdened and insecure within the concreteness of our experience. We can easily imagine very different circumstances both for ourselves and those close to us, and we struggle to make them tangible. If we do obtain what we desire, we then must struggle to keep it, as well as to maintain our own happy state of mind.

From clinging to our survival, and to the specific ideas we believe support it, come all the cruel fantasies of those who wage aggressive war and the pitiful terrors of those who are war’s victims. From this single source comes the predatory search for wealth, the sufferings of poverty, the longings of passion, and the ceaseless dissatisfactions of restlessness.

And with these emotional states comes the logic devoted to their perpetuation. Thus our inner lives become circumscribed by the vicious defensive logic of warfare, the economic logic of need, the lonely logic of relationships, the calculating logic of ambition. And we live a life of anxiety and confusion as we try to find our way amid the competing claims and conflicts of these logics.

Caught by anxiety about our own future, we only appreciate those beings, things, and expressions which further our version of survival. The rest of the world seems shadowy, threatening or possibly helpful, depending on its congruence with our own conceptions. We daily doubt the value of our world and our life in it.

Regardless of their many qualities and potentials, we can regard other beings only in relationship to the logic we have adopted as necessary to our happiness. Thus the world becomes populated with a great number of beings whose view of life is inimical to us, and with a far smaller group whose explicit goals and aspirations we share. We even judge rain, sunlight, wind and stones according to their utility in our scheme of things.

These causes of delusion and mass suffering are as old as our history and are woven into the fabric of the world we know. They do not represent so much a departure from the limitless expanse of great compassion as an attempt to limit it. The sufferings we experience and those we cause all arise from the effort to reduce and categorize the overwhelming diversity of experience into the single framework of our own survival and posterity.

In a glimpse of the vastness and depth of the great compassion without reference point, we see mirrored the terrible and ferocious pettiness which has masqueraded as individual grandiosity and reasonableness. We see our own inescapable, craven clinging. We see how we are prisoners of our own individuality. It is in this way that compassion for the causes of suffering evolves from compassion  without an object.

Generally, our most direct experience of compassion is occasioned by the awareness of  suffering itself. When we hear of the illness of someone we love, when we see a wounded animal, and even when we hear of someone whom we despise suffering the loss of a child, we feel that pain well up in our heart. Here we experience the utter spontaneity of compassion, which rises up past all distinctions and differences, predilections and conceptual frameworks.

However, our habitual second thought, particularly with respect to those who are not close to us, is to draw away from the sight of others’ suffering, just as we try to distance ourselves from our own experience of pain. Just as we feel isolated within our own pain, we tend to isolate others in theirs. In doing so, we tend to justify ourselves by referring to a body of conventional concepts and secret fears; we try to secure our own “needs” and “preserve our boundaries.”

But no matter what conceptualizations we may make use of in these circumstances, we cannot quite ignore that this life is filled with disappointments, sorrow, sickness, death and continuous sufferings of many kinds. This fact cannot be escaped or avoided, no matter how we may invoke the decency of our aspirations, the excellence of our successes, the virtue of our goals, or the reality of our powerlessness.

We can cut through the morass of reflexive ego-clinging in many ways, but the essence of how we do it is always the same: putting the needs and concerns of others before oneself. This is accomplished in simple acts of courtesy, as well as in many kinds of attention, generosity, care and consideration. Parents routinely put the lives and aspirations of their children ahead of their own satisfactions; people often make sacrifices to take care of friends and parents. These kinds of actions, which go on continuously and unremarked, are the essence of social life. Acting in this way, we constantly discover that we do not need to rely on compulsive ego-centered logic. There is a vast range of possibilities alive right before us, revealed in the light of how we take care of the simple world around us.

Compassion that is occasioned by suffering itself brings us into this world ever more fully. We cannot escape what arises in our hearts, even if we are unable to prevent the sufferings around us. The wellsprings of primordial compassion rise in us constantly to dissolve the limits we have set for ourselves and our view of the world.

As a practical matter, the three aspects of compassion arise inseparably. What we feel in the face of real suffering makes us feel a wave of deep connection which goes beyond any specific circumstance, and, at the same time, highlights a feeling of separation which we strive to understand and justify. Every moment of our life reflects this vast, luminous, unsparing pulse, free and freeing from all limits of any kind. Inseparable from the ever-changing dance of phenomena, it is completely stable. Unwavering, it arises in all the displays of temporary circumstance.

In this world, where continuing isolation, uncertainty, conflict and hardship vie in our minds with the loftiest aspirations and longing, compassion is the path which represents the innate unity of relative appearance and ultimate truth. As such, compassion is not a path which is undertaken because it leads somewhere else. It does not lead to an escape or transcendence of the world, nor does it lead to some form of worldly happiness per se. It is a way of living which does not require the rejection of our daily experience nor the rejection of our yearning for ultimate reality. Everything that we encounter, all that we experience, is this path.

Compassion has been cultivated as a concominant element in many spiritual paths. The approach presented here, while rooted in the view of vajrayana Buddhism, regards compassion as the pervasive ground of human nature and experience altogether. It is, in that sense, the ground of all that is enlightened in society everywhere.