As I listen to the news lately, I hear yet another story of killing in Syria or Afghanistan. The reporter then switches to a story about a mass murder at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and I begin to feel overwhelmed by all the violence that exists in our world. How does one remain open to the suffering that occurs daily without developing a numbness or a cold heart that makes the suffering of others as distant as possible? Do we just have to “turn the other cheek” and allow the brutal people of the world take over? How can we remain compassionate, open to the pain of others without letting ourselves become a doormat or our hearts to be hardened into a narrow minded focus that cares only for ourselves and our immediate companions?
And what if in the past someone has abused us or taken advantage of us in an unfair way? Are we who are striving for a compassionate heart supposed to forgive and forget? Are we to let them continue to hurt us? Do we have to continue to relate to them without setting any limits on their behavior?
For answers, I turn to two great spiritual leaders, Jesus and Buddha. Both urged their followers to have a compassionate heart and to love one another as brothers and sisters. Jesus is quoted as saying, “You know you have been taught, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to try to get even with a person who has done something to you. When someone slaps your right cheek, turn and let that person slap your other cheek.” (Matthew 5: 38-39)
What is meant by this statement? If we look only at the surface of the statement from Matthew we might think Jesus was urging us to be passive and not resist evil when we face it. In fact, this scripture has been used to oppress people and keep them in a one down position. Dr. Walter Wink, in his book, Engaging the Powers, sheds light on what these words probably meant, given the social context of the day. According to Dr. Wink, no one in that culture would use their left hand to strike anyone as it was considered the unclean hand. So in order to slap the person’s right cheek, he had to use the back of his right hand. This gesture was meant to be demeaning to the one receiving the blow. Masters would backhand slave and Romans would do so to Jews. If you present the other check, the person must still use his right hand and then he will have to use his fist or palm. That was a gesture used only between equals. Thus, by turning the other cheek a person would be communicating that he or she refused to be humiliated and must be treated as an equal. It was a non-violent but non passive response to the other person’s grasp for power.*
Buddha says,”Let none through anger or ill-will wish harm upon another. Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings; radiating kindness over the entire world…”(part of the Metta Sutta). How does one cherish all living beings when some seem so bent on perpetuating evil in the world? According to Sharon Salzberg in her book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, “Sometimes we think that to develop an open heart, to be truly loving and compassionate, means that we need to be passive, to allow others to abuse us, to smile and let anyone do what they want with us Yet this is not what is meant by compassion. Quite the contrary. Compassion is not at all weak. It is the strength that arise out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world. Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skill at our disposal…Compassion can lead to a very forceful action without any anger or aversion in it.” We need to be open to exploring the context out of which the negative behavior arises before we judge the person who commits the act. If we can see what lead up to the behavior, we can hold an open heart towards the person while still not condoning the act.
A practice that has helped me remain more open to others and to develop a compassionate heart is that of metta. In doing metta practice, we gently repeat phrases that are meaningful in terms of what we wish for ourselves and others. We always begin with ourselves as any practice of lovingkindness that based on self hatred or depreciation cannot sustain itself. We are called to love one another as we love ourselves which means we need to love ourselves first.
Sharon Salzberg’s book gives an in- depth look at how to do this practice and the benefit from making it a daily routine. Briefly, we repeat four phrases that state our wish to be free from danger, to have mental and physical happiness and ease of well-being. The phrases I like to use are taken from Rami Shapiro and are
- May I be free from fear,
- May I be free from compulsions,
- May I be blessed with love,
- May I be blessed by peace.
I always start with myself but then call to mind images of people that I love and state the same phrases for them. I then move to someone I am having a hard time loving or with whom I have a conflict. After this I expand it to the world or particular world leaders. The last step is to pray this for all beings, animal and human.
So, this is my prayer for you, dear reader:
May you be free from fear.
May you be free from compulsions.
May you be blessed with love.
May you be blessed by peace.
*For a more in-depth discussion of this passage and others like it, read Don’t Forgive Too Soon by Denis, Sheila and Matthew Linn