Monday, March 2, 2015

Fear About the World: Confusing Compassion with Despair

Bhiksuni Thubten Chodron

There’s a lot going on in the news these days, which can lead thoughtful people to reflect on the state of the world. Generally, however, we don’t know how to do this in a skillful way. For many of us, reflecting on the state of the world creates a state of distress, and our minds get tight and fearful.

Within that fear there is a lot of “I-grasping,” which we sometimes confuse with compassion. We think, “When I look at the world, and see so much suffering I feel compassion for people.” But in fact, we’re miserable, feeling a sense of despair, fear, depression, and so on. That isn’t genuine compassion. Not recognizing this, some people get afraid of feeling compassion, thinking that it only makes us feel awful. This is a dangerous thought because it can lead us to closing our hearts to others.

Compassion focuses on the suffering of others, but when we feel despair and fear, we are focused on our own suffering. So getting depressed when seeing the suffering of the world is not indicative of compassion. Instead, we’ve fallen into personal distress. It is helpful to notice this when we seem to be sliding into that state of despair.

A Skewed View

When His Holiness the Dalai Lama was in Seattle in 1993, and many journalists attended his public talk, he told them, “You people do a lot of good things. Sometimes you have long noses. You search out all the naughty things people are doing and point them out. And that’s good.” In other words, the press reveals scandals and so on, and, in that way, stops harm.

He continued, “But sometimes you focus too much on the negative. How many people in one city are murdered every day? Sometimes nobody; sometimes one. But what happens if one person is killed in the city? That gets on the front pages, all over. Everybody is upset about it! But the good things people do for each other seldom appear on the front page.”

It’s true, isn’t it? Once in a while a philanthropist will leave money to a charity in his will, and that will make the front page. But most often the media emphasizes things that make us afraid. When we read the newspaper or watch the news, we get a very skewed view of the world, because we see only the harmful things people do to each other. The news doesn’t report all the helpful things, and there are so many of them.

Seeing the Kindness of Others

If you look in a city, on one day how many people are being helped by healthcare professionals? An incredible number! How many people receive help from teachers on that day? So many adults and children! How many people are helping others by fixing their cars, telephones, or computers? If we look at any town, city, or rural area, people are helping each other all the time. We take this for granted and hardly notice it. We need to spend more time reflecting on the kindness we’ve received from others on each day as well as the kindness we’ve seen in general. Our entire world functions only because people help each other. None of us could make it alone.

Maintaining a Balanced View

I suggest that if we are suffering from fear and despair about the state of the world, we have a skewed and unbalanced view of what’s going on. Of course this doesn’t mean that we say, “Oh, everything is cheery and wonderful. There aren’t any problems.” That’s not true. But we can see that there is a continuous base of kindness and goodness in this world. We can pay attention to that, be inspired by it, and use it to motivate ourselves to increase our kindness towards others. We can also point out to the people around us the way they help others. In that way, they will see their own kindness which will inspire them. We can also point out the kindness we receive from strangers. All this is inspiring. In other words, instead of focusing only on the problems and suffering in the world, we train our mind to also see the kindness and help that people give to each other.

When we are fearful about the state of the world, we can ask ourselves, “Am I seeing things correctly? Is violence all that is happening?” Even in the midst of tragedy, people help each other. Let’s try to make our minds more balanced. We acknowledge that a situation may be horrible, but we also remember there is a lot of goodness too. By recognizing that there is still goodness in the world, we might have a chance to change the horrible things.

When we only focus on what is horrible, we sink into despair. When we are overcome by despair, we don’t even try to change anything. So it’s very important to see the goodness. Then let the fear go and instead reach out to others with an open heart.

Reprinted with permission. This article is originally published at http://thubtenchodron.org/2015/01/compassion-despair/
For more information about Venerable and her activities, please visit: www.thubtenchodron.org and www.sravasti.org

Venerable Thubten Chodron: Bhiksuni

Born in 1950, Venerable Thubten Chodron grew up near Los Angeles. She graduated with a B.A. in History from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1971. After traveling through Europe, North Africa and Asia for one and a half years, she received a teaching credential and went to the University of Southern California to do post-graduate work in Education while working as a teacher in the Los Angeles City School System.

In 1975, she attended a meditation course given by Venerable Lama Yeshe and Venerable Zopa Rinpoche, and subsequently went to Kopan Monastery in Nepal to continue to study and practice Buddha’s teachings. In 1977 she was ordained as a Buddhist nun by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan.

She studied and practiced Buddhism of the Tibetan tradition for many years in India and Nepal under the guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tsenzhap Serkong Rinpoche, Zopa Rinpoche and other Tibetan masters. She directed the spiritual program at Lama Tzong Khapa Institute in Italy for nearly two years, studied three years at Dorje Pamo Monastery in France, and was resident teacher at Amitabha Buddhist Center in Singapore. For ten years she was resident teacher at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle.

Venerable Thubten Chodron was a co-organizer of Life as a Western Buddhist Nun, and took part in the conferences of Western Buddhist teachers with H.H. the Dalai Lama in 1993 and 1994. Keen on interfaith dialogue, she was present during the Jewish delegation’s visit to Dharamsala, India, in 1990, which was the basis for Rodger Kamenetz’ The Jew in the Lotus, and attended the Second Gethsemani Encounter in 2002. She has also been present at several of the Mind-Life Conferences in which H. H. the Dalai Lama dialogues with Western scientists, and regularly attends the annual Western Buddhist Monastic Gatherings. She is active in Dharma outreach to people who are incarcerated in prisons.

Venerable Thubten Chodron travels worldwide to teach the Dharma: North America, Latin America, Israel, Singapore, Malaysia, India, and the former Soviet countries. Seeing the importance and necessity of a monastery for Westerners training in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, she founded Sravasti Abbey, a Buddhist monastic community in Washington State, USA, and is currently the abbess there.

Her books include Open Heart, Clear Mind; Taming the Mind; Buddhism for Beginners; Working with Anger; Guided Meditations on the Stages of the Path (with CD); Cultivating a Compassionate Heart: The Yoga Method of Chenrezig; and How to Free Your Mind: Tara the Liberator. She has also edited several books for her teachers, including Transforming Adversity into Joy and Courage by Geshe Jampa Tegchok; Choosing Simplicity by Bhikshuni Master Wu Yin; A Chat about Heruka and A Chat about Yamantaka, both by Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche. Many of her talks can be found on this site in both written and audio form as well as short daily talks on video, longer video talks, and live Internet teachings.

Venerable Thubten Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well-known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings.

Photo credits: 
Photo 1: Sravasti Abbey
Photo 2: Infinite Food via Compfight cc 
Photo 3: GHNI Pics via Compfight cc
Photo 4: Sravasti Abbey

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