Kuan Yin and Green Tara, Himalayan sisters of compassion

Kuan Yin statue

Kuan Yin statue

For the last week I have been chanting a new mantra (new to me anyway!):

Namo Kuan Shi Yin Pu Sah

This is the mantra to/for/of Kuan Yin (or Guan Yin), the Chinese goddess of compassion, an emanation of Avalokiteshwara (Sanskrit), or Chenrezig (Tibetan) – the Bodhisattva of compassion.  The mantra of Avalokiteshwara is Om Mani Padme Hum.  A Bodhisattva is someone who has attained enlightenment but chooses to stick around to help other people achieve the same thing, rather than going off into the Buddha realm and never returning through rebirth into sentient form.

When I was in Paris last year I visited the museum of Asiatic arts and saw a lifesize statue of Kuan Yin, with the ‘thousand’ arms of Avalokiteshwara and sitting in the posture of Green Tara, displaying the same mudras, or hand positions – in truth everything links back to one root in the end, whether through representation, legend/myth or interpretation.  

All this talk of compassion – what is it?  Is it looking at someone who’s having a hard time and thinking ‘Ah, poor sod’?  Is it looking at someone and thinking ‘I would handle that better’?  Is it looking at someone and thinking ‘Man, I’m glad I’m not going through that’?  None of these things is compassion.  Those things are pity and judgement, though the last one might have the seeds of compassion in it.

Compassion is knowing that another’s suffering is your suffering, and that your suffering is another’s suffering.  Compassion is knowing that there is no separation between you and the so-called ‘other’.  In a true state of pure compassion, you are me and I am you.  Your pain is my pain and my pain is your pain.  Compassion is the inevitable emotional component of the absence of the subject/object divide, a state that can be experienced through meditation.  Compassion – in its Latin root (which links back, somewhere in history to Sanksrit), means ‘to suffer with’.  Not beside, not on behalf of, not in the viewing of and not in comparison with, just WITH.  There is no judgement or objectification in compassion.  Avalokisteshwara is the recognizable manifestation of this radical identification.

On a lighter but related note, in an episode of Malcolm in the Middle the mother was trying to explain compassion to one of her sons:  “It’s when you see someone else having a bad time and you imagine that it’s you so you can share that experience with them.”  The boy looked blank and then said, “Why would I want to do that?” and walked away.  It was funny, but…..

It strikes me that all the world’s problems are rooted in our inability to acknowledge that we are just the same as everybody else.  It is so easy to look and to judge, to look and to pity.  The difference with compassion is that there is no object of it, not even yourself.  As the Rinpoche said, when it comes to compassion, ‘…technically, you are not included.’  I guess this is because to conceive of ‘you’ it is necessary to conceive of ‘me’ and the duality, the separation, persists.  Compassion, on the other hand, is the absence of separation.

With so many things in flux in our part of the world right now – and these days ‘our part of the world’ means ‘the world’ – the stakes are high.  With the generalized sense of uncertainty, instability and insecurity it is so tempting to jump to an extreme position, where there’s a quick easy answer and someone to blame.  People are searching for the roots of the problem.  In my opinion it’s all about economics – inequality, mass poverty and concentration of financial power in a very few hands.  For those who wish to hold on to that power it is extremely useful for everyday people like you and me to be arguing amongst ourselves about who’s got the bigger flat screen TV and whether or not they ‘deserve’ it.

It is said that we are living in the Kali Yuga (connected to a demon called Kali, not the goddess), where things disintegrate and pretty much go to shit.  Hold on tight, it only lasts another few hundred thousand years.  It is worth noting that notions of time and quantity are a bendy old business when it comes to the ancient Vedic texts, so things might get better before too long.  Here’s hoping!

Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha

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