Category Archives: Compassion

How to change

There is a well-loved verse from the Buddha’s teaching. It can be found in the Dhammapada (#5) and also in MN 128.

(translated by Gil Fronsdal)
Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

(translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)
For in this world enmity is never
allayed by enmity.
It is allayed by non-hatred:
that is the fixed and ageless law.

I offer two translations in case one or the other is easier for you to contemplate.

Many years ago, in a work setting, a trainer asked the question: “How would it feel to completely accept the person who most annoys you?”  It took me a minute to realize that in order to know how it would feel, I’d have to actually accept my difficult person. What would that feel like? It was possible as a thought experiment; I felt my heart release. These days it’s a question I ask myself when that grating sensation of wanting someone to behave differently comes up. To actually accept someone fully means to acknowledge that they are basing their actions and words on their own experiences, fears, priorities, habits, delusions and all the rest, which are different from mine. It would mean saying yes to both their good qualities and their bad ones (everyone has both), and perhaps feeling compassion for their internal discomfort.

In a recent conversation with another person who cares for those in the last period of life, I said that I thought the good deaths were the ones in which love was present, regardless of the physical realities. My friend said that he thought acceptance was the most important thing. We agreed that acceptance leads to love and love leads to acceptance, so we were saying the same thing with different words.

In another conversation, a friend related strongly to the idea of learning to relax, to let go of how we should be, to understand that perfection is an illusion and that all we have to work with is what’s happening right now.

For me, these three things – acceptance, love, and letting go – are the same movement of the heart. They describe a release of clinging, a return to our natural inclination to love and protect others. Perhaps it’s a paradox, but when we really let go of our clinging, even for a moment, that soft, empty space is what we call love – or non-hatred. It’s not nothing. It is a spaciousness that allows others to be as they are without our interference.

A correlation to the verse above may be that no one ever changed in the intended way through punishment; only love brings about change in living beings. This is something we can prove in our own relationships, by thoroughly accepting ourselves and others and seeing what happens next.


Filed under Anger, Causes and results, Compassion, Dhammapada, General, Relationships

It’s not the same

An underlying cause of unease is our desire for stability, for predictability, for security. We get nervous when people or things change in unexpected ways. When someone says, “It will never be the same again”, I automatically think: “Well, it wasn’t staying the same before, either”.  Nothing stays the same. Mostly we think that things are fine if we don’t hear anything to the contrary; or we assume that nothing changes if we’re not paying attention to it. But everything is changing all the time: the weather, our attitudes, peoples’ health, our opinions, our locations, our moods. Physical things decay and eventually break. This is the characteristic of all existence called anicca, or impermanence.

Anicca is one reason it can be hard to make changes in our lives. We think that if we can hold “just this one thing” steady, we won’t become disoriented or afraid. We sometimes prefer an unpleasant reality to an unknown one.

What would it be like to actually know that everything is changing all the time? If we tuned into this reality every day, we’d become more alert, more closely observing of ourselves and others. We’d have to remember that the way we perceive and imagine things today is not the same as it was yesterday, and it could well be different tomorrow. Both the subject and the objects of our awareness are in flux.

To sustain awareness of anicca, we would need to learn to relax into it, and part of that ability to accept change is to accept our own dislike of it, a primary form of dukkha (stress or suffering). We can distract ourselves to the point of exhaustion, but there’s no escape, is there? If we can start to accept our own liking and disliking and (through wisdom) reduce our reactivity, our grasping and pushing away, everything becomes easier. Physical discomfort? It’s unpleasant but (in almost all cases) it will pass. Extreme elation? Very pleasant, and it will pass. Weather, bad or good? It, too, will change. Relationship difficulties or ecstasies? All of the nature to pass away. Our favorite possessions? All will inevitably be lost, broken, or become rubbish one day. If we acknowledge these realities on a regular basis, we begin to go with the flow of anicca.

Perhaps the hardest part of waking up to our existential situation is acknowledging that there’s a lot more we don’t know than we do know, but we can become accustomed to living with uncertainty. “I don’t know”, “let’s wait and see”, and similar phrases can help us live in a less fraught world. Nobody knows the whole story, except perhaps a fully awakened being, and whoever she is, she’s not talking. She knows that we have to find our own way to greater clarity.



Filed under Causes and results, Compassion, Dukkha, General

Fair share

When we live with other people, it is common for us to feel we are doing more than our fair share of the communal duties, i.e., keeping common areas clean, shopping, yard maintenance, cooking, dishes, etc. This can be true whether we live with a partner we love unreservedly or with random roommates. Often everyone involved feels they are doing all the work, which is an impossibility. It can be hard to recognize what others do that benefits us.

The Buddha was the leader of a large and diverse community of monks and nuns. The community members arrived from different backgrounds with different customs, and part of their training was learning how to live together in a way that promoted their development in the Dharma.

In our times, an analogy for the effect of living in a monastic community has been described as putting a collection of sharp stones into a jar and shaking the jar until the stones are smooth. Living in close community can wear away our rough edges, if we approach it as a training.

[Anuruddha says] “Surely, Bhante, we are living in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes.”

[the Buddha] “But Anuruddha, how do you live thus?”

[Anuruddha] “Bhante, as to that, I think: ‘It is a gain for me, a great gain for me, that I am living with such companions in the holy life’. I maintain bodily acts of loving-kindness toward those venerable ones both openly and privately; I maintain verbal acts of loving-kindness toward them both openly and privately; I maintain mental acts of loving-kindness toward them both openly and privately. I consider: ‘Why should I not set aside what I wish to do and do what they wish to do?’ Then I set aside what I wish to do and do what they wish to do. We are different in body, but one in mind. That is how, Bhante, we are living in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes.” (from MN 31, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

The key may be to ask ourselves, “Why should I not set aside what I wish to do and do what they wish to do?”. When we are disposed to love someone, we automatically consider their desires along with our own, but unless we pay scrupulous attention, it is common for our self-centered ways to creep back to the forefront. If we consider the mundane tasks of living as work we’d rather not do, then we inevitably (if unthinkingly) feel that someone else should do them.

One strategy is to view our own acts of deference as gifts, as a practice of generosity. We can recognize when resentment starts rising up and examine its causes. Are we being taken for granted? Is our presence being de-valued? Is our perception clear? If we can calmly discuss divisions of labor, many difficulties can be avoided, but even more can be accomplished if we take the attitude that living together is an opportunity to train ourselves in generosity.

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Filed under Compassion, Friendships, Relationships, Speech

Attending to the sick

In any community that exists for more than a short time, someone will fall ill. Often when serious illness strikes, the family is the primary care-giving community, but sometimes friends become like family. When someone is sick, it tends to pre-empt petty concerns and reminds us that we do, at base, care about each other.

In describing how communities of the Buddha’s followers should work, the Buddha listed five qualities that those attending to the sick should embody, and another five that make a patient easy to care for. By considering them together, we acknowledge that at times in our lives we’ll be called on to give care, and at other times we will be the ones needing care.

Monks, possessing five qualities, an attendant is qualified to take care of a patient. What five? (1) He is able to prepare medicine. (2) He knows what is beneficial and harmful, so that he withholds what is harmful and offers what is beneficial. (3) He takes care of the patient with a mind of loving-kindness, not for the sake of material rewards. (4) He is not disgusted at having to remove feces, urine, vomit, or spittle. (5) He is able from time to time to instruct, encourage, inspire, and gladden the patient with a Dhamma talk. Possessing these five qualities, an attendant is qualified to take care of a patient.

Possessing five other qualities, a patient is easy to take care of. What five? (1) He does what is beneficial. (2) He observes moderation in what is beneficial. (3) He takes his medicine. (4) He accurately discloses his symptoms to his kind-hearted attendant; he reports, as fits the case, that his condition is getting worse, or getting better, or remaining the same. (5) He can patiently endure arisen bodily feelings that are painful, racking, sharp, piercing, harrowing, disagreeable, sapping ones’ vitality. Possessing these five qualities, a patient is easy to take care of. (AN 5:123-124, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

The Buddha gives us practical advice on how to be a good care-giver and also a good care-receiver. Regarding item (5) in the first paragraph, not everyone feels qualified to share the Buddha’s teachings, nor would every patient welcome them. But regardless of our knowledge, we can try to encourage, inspire, and gladden the patient with whatever words or actions might work best for that individual.

Regarding item (4) in the first paragraph, many carers find themselves revolted by the prospect of dealing with bodily fluids and other “yucky” things. But if called on to perform such assistance, it can be a beneficial reminder to the carer that we are all in human bodies and this is how bodies function when they’re not well. Illness or disability is likely to come to all of us at some time in our lives. Why not face the reality now?

In the Buddha’s time, there were many fewer options than there are now for reducing physical pain related to illness. But even with excellent medications and care, we are all of a nature to experience physical discomfort at one time or another. In many situations, it can’t be entirely eliminated and patient endurance will be needed.

As we live through these experiences, either as carer or patient, we can use the opportunities presented to bring ourselves more into alignment with our highest aspirations.

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Filed under Compassion, Friendships, General, Patience, Relationships

How to get along with each other

From AN 10:50, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi:

… Monks, it is not suitable for you clansmen who have gone forth out of faith from the household life into homelessness to take to arguing and quarreling and to fall into a dispute, stabbing each other with piercing words. 

There are monks, these ten principles of cordiality that create affection and respect and conduce to cohesiveness, to non-dispute, to concord, and to unity. What ten?

  1. Here a monk is virtuous..
  2. Again, a monk has learned much, remembers what he has learned, and accumulates what he has learned…
  3. Again, a monk has good friends, good companions, good comrades….
  4. Again, a monk is easy to correct and possesses qualities that make him easy to correct; he is patient and receives instruction respectfully….
  5. Again, a monk is skillful and diligent in attending to the diverse chores that are to be done for his fellow monks;….
  6. Again, a monk loves the Dhamma and is pleasing in his assertions, filled with a lofty joy pertaining to the Dhamma and discipline….
  7. Again, a monk has aroused energy for abandoning unwholesome qualities and acquiring wholesome qualities; he is strong, firm in exertion, not casting off the duty of cultivating wholesome qualities….
  8. Again, a monk is content with any kind of robe, almsfood, lodging, and medicines and provisions for the sick. [I.e., content with simple necessities]…
  9. Again, a monk is mindful, possessing supreme mindfulness and alertness, …
  10. Again, a monk is wise; he possesses the wisdom that discerns arising and passing away, which is noble and penetrative and leads to the complete destruction of suffering….

This seems to me a comprehensive and useful list of qualities that would make members of a community get along with each other – or, if they hold the opposing views and behaviors, not.

A few adjustments to the language might be useful to encourage our use of these guidelines. We could substitute the word “practitioner” for monk, meaning simply an individual who is part of a community that intends to live in cooperation. “Loving the Dhamma” describes a dedication to shared goals.

Items 9 and 10 imply a mature wisdom, which takes time and dedication to embody, so we could use those as aspirations rather than berating ourself for failing to have extraordinary accomplishments.

In sum, these are the qualities we might look for, in ourselves and in others, as descriptors of good companions:

  1. Ethical behavior
  2. Learned
  3. Having wholesome associates
  4. Willing to learn/be taught
  5. Doesn’t shirk duties or one’s fair share of work
  6. Joyful
  7. Dedicated to refining one’s behavior
  8. Contented with little in the way of material goods
  9. Mindful
  10. Wise

Which of these qualities do we possess in better-than-average measure? Are there any that are conspicuously absent? As we think of our friends and associates, which of these qualities can we admire and be grateful for in them? Which missing items can we notice but decide to overlook or bring to their attention (at the right time)? Would we welcome shared reflections on these aspects of our own behavior?

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Filed under Causes and results, Compassion, Friendships, General, Mindfulness, Relationships

Questions and answers

In Buddhist traditions, as with many other religions and cultures, debate holds a special place. Part investigation, part competition, it is common for people to engage in back and forth conversation in an attempt to sharpen their wits and prove their points. The Buddha was often challenged by the proponents of other paths. In the sutta quoted below, he lists four specific types of questions and the appropriate ways to answer them.

Bhikkhus, there are these four ways of answering questions. What four?

(1) There is a question to be answered categorically, e.g. Q: ‘Is the eye impermanent?’ A: ‘Yes.’

(2) There is a question to be answered after making a distinction, e.g.  Q:’ Is the impermanent the eye?’ A: ‘Not only the eye, the the ear, nose, etc. are also impermanent.’

(3) There is a question to be answered with a counter-question, e.g. Q: ‘Does the eye have the same nature as the ear?’ A: ‘With respect to what?’ (with respect to seeing – no; with respect to impermanence – yes).

(4) There is a question to be set aside, e.g. ‘Is the soul the same as the body?’ 

These are four ways of answering questions. – from AN 4:42, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi, with examples from the commentaries (taken from footnotes to the AN)

Much of our public conversation at present is characterized by artificially constructed “yes or no” questions. These guidelines may help us talk with each other in ways that bring more clarity and (perhaps) less volatility.

If someone says “You’re either with us or against us”, we may well ask, “Who is ‘us'”? If someone asks how the universe could have been created without an underlying intelligence, we can put that question aside as unbeneficial. When someone categorizes people as “lifters or leaners”, we might ask whether we haven’t all been both lifters and leaners at different times in our lives.

We can also practice mindfulness by not reacting to every scrap of news (every tweet) that floats across our awareness, at least not right away. An enormous percentage of the daily “noise” of the news turns out to have no consequence by the next day. It’s liberating to realize that we can let things pass by, can take our time deciding what to allow into our consciousness, and what to respond to.

As with many of the practices involving speech, we can always consider the option of listening, of waiting and reflecting before we speak. With practice, we can recognize questions that can and can’t be answered with a yes or no. Even if the questioner’s intention is provocative, we can reply with seriousness. We can use a question to reframe an issue to the benefit of those open to conversation. In this way, we can increase the level of harmony in whatever company we find ourselves in.

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Filed under Compassion, Mindfulness, Speech


“You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things.”
― M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans (a novel)

Forgiveness is related to gratitude, but more complicated. To cultivate gratitude, we only have to direct our attention to blessings being received. To forgive, we have to see that our pain is part of damage on a broader scale.

The Stedman quote above comes from the mouth of a character who is violently persecuted for being German in Australia during WWII. The clear choice not to take the persecution personally comes as a blast of counter-intuitive fresh air. It is true that to resent requires constantly refreshing our own anger, and that we do have the choice to give that up.

We are inclined to see the world in terms of aggressors and victims, but there is another view. The following quote is taken from a recent column by Washington Post advisor Carolyn Hax (edited by me):

Q: [Having been raped,] how is forgiveness actually possible?

A: Carolyn Hax – To my mind, forgiveness is not about absolving. I see it more as a matter of bringing a broader understanding to what makes people do bad things to each other. So, the perpetrator did something bad, it was that person’s choice and fault–but who comes to such an awful choice without something horribly wrong in that person’s life?

So your pain is not isolated, it’s part of a continuum of pain and of human frailty–and in that is where, speaking only for myself here, I find the stirrings of forgiveness. It’s the start of a decision, counterintuitively, not to bundle up your anger at the perpetrator as part of your own pain, but instead to release the perp to his own pain: “This wasn’t about me, I was just unlucky to be there–this was about a broken person who must live the consequences of that brokenness.” That in turn releases you to be about you, and healing.

The change in perspective that Carolyn Hax describes may be very difficult to arrive at on one’s own. Any trauma deserves to be treated with the help of a skilled and caring therapist.

The “truth and reconciliation” process that was undertaken in South Africa started with the confessions of the aggressors. Healing came from confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It is rare that the full process can be realized; perpetrators of harm rarely confess and ask for forgiveness. And yet we would do well to attempt to free ourselves from the prison of resentment.

A good working principle is that everyone is doing the best they can with their currently available resources and understandings. Many of us do things that we think will make us happier or better off and then discover that they don’t. We can’t know what goes on inside other beings.

Many of the hurts we carry with us are small ones. Perhaps we can start by forgiving the momentary annoyances and perceived slights. While trying to keep ourselves out of harm’s way, we can come back to gratitude for what we have, fortified by forgiveness as needed.





Filed under Anger, Causes and results, Compassion, Relationships