There’s an old Buddhist story that goes like this:
Once a mother found her baby extremely ill. She was afraid it would die. She had heard that the Buddha was teaching nearby, so she grabbed up her baby and rushed to the Buddha to ask that her baby be healed.
“Why do you want your baby healed?” the Buddha asked.
The mother was aghast: “because my baby is suffering and I’m afraid! This is a tragedy!”
The Buddha said, “I will heal your child. All I ask is that you return to your village, and knock at every door until you find a household where there has been no tragedy. When you find that house, ask for a handful of rice and bring it back to me.”
So the mother rushed into the village and began knocking on doors. “Have you experience a tragedy?” she asked. “Have you experienced a tragedy?” She ran from door to door hoping to collect that handful of rice but found that every house had experienced a tragedy of some sort—disease, hunger, poverty . . .
The mother returned to the Buddha and said, “I see. I understand.” And she went home with her child.
Now, compare that story to the Christian narrative of Jesus healing the sick, and I think we get at a basic difference between the Buddhist and Christian narratives.
It would be grand were we to get our own personal miracle every time we asked for one. But that’s a fairy tale. If those sorts of miracles occurred, who among us would be sick or old of depressed? Who among us would have lost our parents or siblings or loved ones?
You remember the story of the Good Samaritan. It occurs in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 10. A young lawyer comes to talk with Jesus, asking how he can achieve eternal life. The answer Jesus gives is, “love God and love your neighbor.” The young lawyer asks, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the story. The upshot of the story is that everyone is a neighbor. It’s a universalizing story.
However we get ourselves there—religion, philosophy, meditation—however we get ourselves there, I’m convinced that’s the place that we all need to be . . . and want to be. Compassion is our heart’s home. That place of big compassion is where we naturally are when we get out of our own way and listen to that self we have beyond all the ego.
Compassion goes beyond “loving thy neighbor as thyself” and leads toward a deeper understanding, and another of the great Buddhist insights: actually, your neighbor IS yourself. And that bird is yourself. And that spider is yourself. And that tree is yourself. It came to Charles Darwin in a flash, and he wrote in his notebook: “We all may be netted together.”
This compassion springs from the fact that all things are connected and all things are temporary—from our own lives to the earth itself—that all the things we see here, today, will be gone, part of the flow of the universe.
We live a shared life in a shared world. And our shared lives and our shared world are all about change and loss. What we have is each other and the integrity of our actions.
Compassion is the understanding that there’s nothing unique about me, me, me. We all lead a shared life in a shared world. No one ever asked us to like it. To find any happiness at all, we’ve got to adjust to what reality tells us is true.
Humanism teaches that we are already whole and complete and OK, like everything else in the universe. That’s the good news. The bad news is that everything in the universe is changing all the time. That’s the poignancy of existence.