Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Golden Rule of Compassion

Compassion - co-suffering, shared feeling. This concept of Latin roots in two words, meaning "with" and "suffer" is the key to major religious traditions of the modern world. It may be found in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

The Buddha said: "Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others. It crushes and destroys the pain of others; thus, it is called compassion. It is called compassion because it shelters and embraces the distressed." Dalai Lama explained: "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion."

Compassion is more active and engaged than mere empathy; it implies action based on altruistic, charitable motives. It means living connected to others: to their emotions, their distress, their pain. There is no human society that is truly and fully human without compassion.

In the Western ethical tradition, the beginnings of compassion are summarized in the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you..." Ancient Chinese knew it as: ""Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself." (Confucius). Buddhist teachings phrase it as: "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." (Udanavarga 5:18). In 1993, the Parliament of the World's Religions, representing 143 faith organizations, passed a "Declaration Toward the Global Ethics" including the Golden Rule as the shared principle of all religions: ""We must treat others as we wish others to treat us."

How do we express it in contemporary world? How do we hear its voice in the incessant noise of the overwhelming barrage of information, mostly useless, and mostly ignored through the phenomenon of "partial attention." In order to feel connected and share the suffering of others, we need to focus on them, pay attention to other people in an intimate, personal way. Great spiritual traditions used "focal points" of stories or deities to make sure that the faithful paid attention.

A Buddhist monk lived a life "moved by mercy and, living compassionately, is kind to all creatures that have life." During the recent lecture of the Dalai Lama to students at USC, he talked about the difficulty he had with taking the life of a mosquito, he would not kill the first one that bit him, nor the second, third or fourth. Instead he would gently blow at them, trying to make them fly away. But by the fifth bite, his patience would being to run thin... Apparently, mosquitoes are the Dalai Lama's pet peeve and compassion for these pesky insects is extremely hard to practice.

Let us leave mosquitoes to their vices, then, and turn to noble swans. The range of "swan" stories is quite fascinating. In the West, we are all familiar with the "Ugly duckling" story of a swan raised not to know his true, regal nature, expected to be a mere duck and live among the common fowl. The magnificent self-discovery is the tale's timeless attraction: don't we all want to be enchanting swans, rather than quacking and waddling ducks? Another "swan" story is that of the Swan Lake and the myths surrounding this dark story with evil sorcerers and tragic loss, all the way up to the cinematographic and haunting in its spiritual darkness, the Black Swan.

But who has heard of Buddha's swans? The story is as follows: When the Swan King was caught in a hunter's trap and his leg started bleeding, all the other swans flew away. All, but one, his closest friend who refused to abandoned the injured King. When the hunter came back for his prey, the faithful swan begged him to free the Swan King so they could both fly away. Moved by the altruistic behavior of the second bird, risking his own life for that of his friend, the hunter let both birds free. The King of Swans was Buddha himself, teaching a lesson of self-sacrifice and friendship. The core virtue of this story is compassion.

In my poem, describing a sculpture found in the permanent collection of the Pacific Asia Museum, "Usha" is a Vedic/Hindu goddess of dawn and "Ushnisha" means a three dimensional topknot or crown on Buddha's head - a sign of enlightenment. Both words are used more for the sound effect than meaning, though ascent and illumination at dawn is an old spiritual theme. "Numinous" refers to the power or presence of divinity - I look at the Buddha through my Christian eyes, seeking divine signs and lessons everywhere.

Buddha with Swans

Swans embrace
on Buddha’s breastplate,
below his heavy-lidded
eyes and a half-smile
by the massive crown.

Usha towers above
Ushnisha. Dawn rises
over spiky bronze prongs,
wings on the shoulders.

He is covered in glory,
his mind ascends already
into the lucid distance of yes.

The left hand gathers love
from the world as a gift
to the other universe,
where all is always well.
The right hand sternly points
down to the earth.

Straight fingers, simple laws –
stand upright, patiently wait
for the rain of blessings
to fall upon you with the weight
of Buddha's crown.

On his chest, the swans
embrace, faintly shining
in the numinous wreath
of the present.

In the second poem, called "Illuminata" (the enlightened one), I refer to another core Buddhist principle: the renunciation of all desire, as the foundation for wisdom and compassion. Except, in my Western zeal for self-betterment, I really, really, really "want that crown" - thus, paradoxically, giving in to the desire that makes it impossible to attain enlightenment. "Avalokiteshvara" - a strange, eight-armed figure that is portrayed either seated or dancing, is an embodiment of infinite compassion. This Buddhist saint (Bodhisattva) was an enlightened one who refused to enter the blissful state of Nirvana in order to stay among people and help them ascend spiritually.


I want that crown.

That one. In the middle,
right above the eight-armedjavascript:void(0)
Avalokiteshvara of gilded
bronze with blue paint.

I want that crown.

I want the divine light
to paint my thoughts
with the blue of wisdom,
with the gold of compassion.

I want my eyes to sparkle
with the jewel hues
of enlightenment.

I want to soar in the song
of the mountain peaks,
breathe their rarefied air.

I want that crown.

(C) 2009 by Maja Trochimczyk



Written in 2009 for the tour of the permanent collection of the Pacific Asia Museum, the first poem is a description of a Seated Buddha sculpture from Myanmar (Burma), wearing a high crown and body armor. The second poem refers to a crown worn in Buddhist processions in Nepal.

Both poems were first published in a chapbook edited by Kathabela Wilson for Poets on Site, Pasadena, 2009.

"Usha" is a Vedic/Hindu goddess of dawn and "Ushnisha" means a three dimensional topknot or crown on Buddha's head - a sign of enlightenment. Both words are used more for the sound effect than meaning, though ascent and illumination at dawn is an old spiritual trope.

The digital collages (c) 2009 by Maja Trochimczyk use the images of the crown and of the sculpture accompanied by an enlarged detail from the armor with the two swans embracing.

"All is always well" - paraphrased quote from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets.

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