Monday, December 28, 2009

Awakening Compassion

In chapter eleven of her Life, Teresa of Avila describes progress in the spiritual life with the lovely image of watering a garden. The garden is within the soul. Water is the experience of divine love. Prayer is the effort we exert to water the garden.

Teresa employs four images representing four stages of prayer. As we progress through these stages, we experience an increasing sense of love and a decreasing sense of self effort.

In the first stage, we pull water from a well. In the second stage, we employ a waterwheel to draw the water. In the third stage, the water is drawn from a nearby spring or stream. In the final stage, a gentle rain provides the water; the Lord “waters it Himself.”

Commenting on this image, Gerald May remarks, “I would say that increasing purity or experience [of divine love] is associated with decreased ‘processing’ by the mind. In wondering how the soul was occupied during the watering-by-rain, Teresa felt God say to her, ‘It dissolves utterly, my daughter, to rest more and more in Me. It is no longer itself that lives; it is I.’”(1)

Our sense of effort in prayer diminishes as our sense of self diminishes and our sense of God enlarges. In the first stage, we need a very strong sense of self to focus our awareness and let go of attachments, preoccupations, and illusions. It takes a lot of effort to gather this concentration.

In the second stage, while our sense of self diminishes, we may become acutely aware of the method of prayer we are employing (the waterwheel); preoccupied with whether or not we are doing it “right.” We may find ourselves in this stage for a long time, becoming aware that we are distracted and employing the method to refocus – coming back to our breath, reciting the Jesus prayer, using our sacred word as a touchstone, etc. We are conscious of when we are not praying, and of when we are praying.

Zen Master Sheng Yen offers a wonderful analogy here.(2) Normally, when we put on a pair of glasses we are just seeing through them. If we are continually conscious of the glasses, they actually become a barrier to perception. So it is with our methods of prayer and meditation. They are simply glasses, aids to perception.

By the third stage we have let go of thinking about the method and are simply praying; the water flows more freely as from a stream. We not only have relinquished our thoughts, but our thoughts about our thoughts as well! In this stage we are not conscious of anything in particular, though we may be acutely aware of everything.

In a sense, the final stage is the end of prayer because it is the end of the self; at least, it is the end of the self’s effort at discrimination. Perhaps we can say that there is praying, but no “I” who is doing the praying. It is simply raining love. For the duration of this unitive experience the subject-object distinction is transcended without being destroyed. It just is.

There is a similar progression in Zen Buddhist meditation, moving through the experiences of scattered-mind, simple-mind, and one-mind, to no-mind.(3) “Scattered-mind” is the state of being tossed to and fro by our mental preoccupations; first one thing, and then another. We are distracted by our thoughts, feelings, and sensations when we first settle down to meditate. In “simple-mind” we are recollected and our method is “working.” Our awareness is very focused or one-pointed.

“One mind” expands this awareness to encompass everything. “I” become identified with “All,” but there is still a sense of self operative. A Zen practitioner was blissfully in this state of “one mind” when his teacher discovered him hugging a dog on the street. The teacher asked, “What are you doing embracing this dog?” The student replied, “It’s just me!” In response, the teacher struck him suddenly and exclaimed, “What! You mean you still have a ‘me’ there?”

In the state of “no-mind,” by contrast, there is no sense of “me,” however large and encompassing that identity may be. One attains wu or emptiness, understood as the absence of attachment to self. Master Yen describes it in this way: “In Buddhism we often speak of the enlightened state as ‘no-self’ because we have no better words for it. What this phrase says is that, at this stage, existence does not rely on self, others, or anything. It is spontaneous, natural existence. Accordingly, one helps sentient beings. Not for the sake of self, not for the sake of others; one just naturally helps sentient beings.”(4)

The absence of self is not a kind of nihilism, but rather the necessary condition for spontaneous compassion to arise. Here, I am reminded of Jesus’ teaching that we must lose our life in order to gain it, in order to become indiscriminately compassionate as God is compassionate.(5) While the Christian and the Buddhist part ways in how they describe Ultimate Reality – for Christianity is a bhakti yoga, and gladly embraces personal metaphors of divine love – it seems to me that they come close to convergence at the level of lived experience of this Reality.

Where we also may differ is in our response to this experience. Master Yen says that “Bodhisattvas have no particular point of view. Like a mirror, they are only a reflection of sentient beings. They do not say, ‘I will behave this way or that way to help people.’”(6) The Bodhisattva, the enlightened one, gives expression to compassion by helping people to perceive the reality of their own condition. There is, however, no impetus to “help.”

The Christian is moved to “help.”(7) The question, however, remains as to what action is truly helpful. This is a matter of discernment. But it is not a question the Christian can avoid. Is it one that the Buddhist can avoid either? Not if contemplation-and-action is, finally, one movement in response to Reality. Compassion is not only reflecting Reality, but also working to ameliorate conditions that inhibit others from realizing their true nature.

(1) Gerald May, Will and Spirit, p. 202.
(2) Chan Master Sheng Yen, Getting the Buddha Mind, pp. 57-58.
(3) Yen, pp. 128-130.
(4) Yen, pp. 71-72.
(5) See, for example, Luke 6:27-36, 9:21-27, 15:11-32.
(6) Yen, p. 72.
(7) The parable of the Good Samaritan and The Letter of James come to mind.

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