So this is how I heard it. On the night before Siddhartha Awakened, as he contemplated the problem of suffering that had caused him to leave home, he became aware of his innumerable past lives. He saw himself as predator, and as prey; he saw himself as deer hunter, and as the hunted deer; he saw himself as the rape victim and the rapist; as the adulterer and as the cuckold; as eater and as the one being eaten. He saw that in every case, actions and their consequences had led to each event, and that consequences had inevitably followed. He saw the suffering in everything, and he felt pity and compassion for every being because he saw in himself the potential for every failing he had seen in others.
In Sanskrit, this is called karuna; you can translate it as empathy, or compassion, or even tenderness.
I’ve got Buddhist friends in many traditions. Some of them were discussing a recent story about Bodu Bala Sema — “Buddhist Power Force”, which really sounds like it ought to be a live-action Saturday morning kid’s show — rallying the Buddhists of Sri Lanka against the Muslim Tamils. This follows the Sri Lankan civil war, which followed the collapse of a cease-fire agreement with the Tamil Tigers in 2002, which followed an insurgency of 20-odd years, which followed anti-Tamil discrimination, which followed … and followed … and followed … on into the past.
These Buddhist friends were fairly vehement that the monks leading this, and in particular Galagoda Atte Gnanasara, the monk who is leading this, should be defrocked. After all, one of the first things a Buddhist should be practicing is karuna, and encouraging mobs to attack Muslims isn’t particularly compassionate.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit — in part because I’m sure no one else has even considered the question — that I have no damn clue about how Buddhist monks are organized and trained and ordained and certified in Sri Lanka. I don’t know how or if Gnanasara could be defrocked. But I didn’t necessarily disagree with them; the whole situation strikes me as not being particularly kusala, skillful, and likely to lead to more suffering, not less.
It did, however, make me think about things in my own life and in other’s lives that I’ve seen. Some of you may recall me writing about my mother’s death, which happens to have been on 11 January 2012, two years ago last Saturday. Mother and I had a difficult relationship, it’d be fair to say, and especially in my adult years, one of the most difficult things to deal with was my resentment about things she had done to hurt me. She should have been better, dammit!
Another young friend’s cat recently died; he was really tormenting himself saying that he should have been more aware, he should have known that this cat — which had seemed pretty much asymptomatic — was actually sick and taken the cat to the vet. He should have been more aware, dammit!
And my Buddhist friends were angry at Gnanasara, who was failing his duties as a Buddhist teacher and monk. He should be more compassionate, dammit!
So all of us suffer as a result; all of us feel ourselves trapped in duhkha. We rage at ourselves, our loved ones, at people we have great expectations of, because we were disappointed in them. We’re not living up to our expectations, and they’re not living up to the expectations we have for them. But then, I think about this story of how the Buddha’s great compassion came to him, and wonder if we’re being compassionate with ourselves, with our loved ones, with our teachers.