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Developing Compassion as a Step to Enlightenment

by Lisa VanOstrand

The world's religious traditions offer different approaches to God-realization. Although dissimilarities exist in their external aspects, nonduality is at the core of all great religions. The essence of nonduality is that only one god exists, one spirit or whatever name you wish to call It exists. Despite the myriad appearances of form that the One has become, there is ultimate only One.

If there is only one, then all sentient beings must therefore be equal manifestations of God. If we can truly understand this at the deepest level of our being, that there is no difference between ourself and others, then compassion and mercy become an essential part of any spiritual path and practice. And in fact all major religions repeatedly embrace this viewpoint. In Christianity, this is the meaning of Christ's saying, "Do unto others as you would do unto yourself. " The act of Christ dying for our sins was the ultimate expression of compassion and mercy. The Mahayana path of Buddhism is totally focused on enlightenment not only for one's individual self but also for all sentient beings. Any one person's enlightenment would be considered incomplete if there were still sentient beings suffering. The Bodhisattva vow so beautifully expresses this concept: "For as long as time and space exist and sentient beings remain, may I, too, abide to dispel the misery of the world. " In Hinduism, the idea of compassion and unity consciousness is expressed throughout the Vedas and Upanishads; "All indeed is Braham (God) " is just one example of this.

If we look to other sentient beings around us, we see that everyone desires essentially the same things as ourselves - a lasting state of happiness and freedom from suffering. Yet it is impossible to live on this earth without encountering suffering. In fact, this is the essence of the first of four noble truths that the Buddha preached after his enlightenment. The first noble truth being that the suffering of birth, old age, sickness and death are unavoidable.

There are times when we all experience the pain and frustration of life. Some people may now be enjoying relatively happy and carefree lives, but it is only a matter of time before they, too, will experience suffering. And even if things may be fine with us, at the moment, if we look around, we see the suffering of other beings: terrorism, illness, starvation, cruelty to people and animals.

In today's world, we need a path to Enlightenment that doesn't take us away from the world, that doesn't allow us to escape or transcend the world but rather encourages us to participate in a most vital sense with all of our heart and soul. The fact that there is ultimately no difference between ourselves and others is the endpoint of Enlightenment; a state of nondual awareness. Developing compassion with heartfelt awareness can be a stepping stone on the path to Enlightenment. It is through compassion that loving kindness is awakened and we experience our humanity and our sameness with others. Following are some practices that can help you develop compassion.

Start Simple

Sometimes it is easy for us to have an attitude that we do not make any difference, that what we do or think cannot possibly affect the world. However, whatever we do, think and feel ripples throughout the universe. Here are some simple things you can do to start cultivating compassion. Like any exercise program, start where you are and practice. As will be emphasized later, it is important that compassion be visceral and heartfelt and not some mental or theoretical exercise.

One of the things that makes me feel like I am making a difference is to think positive thoughts. This can be as simple as wishing people well that you know are suffering. So the next time you pass a homeless person or an animal or person who is suffering, you can just mentally wish them peace and happiness. Whatever situations touch your heart, this is the place to begin.

Learning to tune into our heart and practice compassion is of utmost important when we feel challenged by anger and hatred. War is nothing more than the collective feeling of a group of individual's anger and hatred. So it is important for each of us to work at this level to conquer our negative emotions.

The next time someone cuts you off in traffic or makes a wise crack, instead of saying something or acting out your anger or frustration, stop, take a deep breath and imagine that this person has had a really bad day or is under extreme stress. Although it is important not to repress our true feelings or thoughts about the situation, it is not necessary to share or act out whenever we feel we have been wronged. And if you do feel the need to say or do something, tune into your heart first; remembering that whatever was said or done is not the true essence of this person. Modulate your voice to your heart. We have probably all experienced the truth of the saying "It's not what you say, it's how you say it".

Patanjali's Yoga Sutras gives us the practice of sublimation. "When one's mind is disturbed by thoughts, one should ponder on the opposite thought". Imagine the benefit, if everytime you were jealous, you became happy for another persons success or if everytime you remembered someone's faults you instead remembered their virtues.


Tonglen is an important practice in the Buddhist Mahayana teachings for the development of compassion. In Tibetan: 'tong' means 'sending out' or 'letting go' and 'len' means 'receiving' or 'accepting'. Here is the basic practice of tonglen. In meditation, visualize someone you know and love who is suffering. As you breathe in, imagine all of the person's suffering-in the form of dark, black, hot, heavy, thick, smoke or tar --entering your nostrils and traveling down in to your heart. As you breathe out, imagine that happiness and virtue radiate out 360 degrees through all the pores of your body in the form of rays of white, cool, light and are absorbed by this person.

It may help your visualization, if for example, your mother is suffering from depression as you draw in the black smoke, to see your mother in your mind's eye being free from the suffering. Imagine her alive and well and delighting in life. As you send out the white light simultaneously you can send out love, joyfulness or whatever would be healing to her and real and heartfelt to you. It is an important part of the initial practice to work with a specific object of suffering that you have a connection with. The goal of this initial practice is that the experience should be heartfelt, real, honest, and vividly felt.

So you think of your mother in pain, and you breathe that in. When you feel you have progressed with the initial practice you can extend this wish to relieve suffering much further. You start with say your mother and then extend out to all those who are suffering in the same way she is. So you may include all beings who suffer from depression. Other variations are to extend your practice to include the town the person lives in, then to the nation, then to the whole world ultimately including all sentient beings. Also know that you can practice Tonglen on yourself and the areas in life where you are suffering. Sometimes it is all too easy to be compassionate with others and to leave ourselves out.

Repeat this with different people, in whatever way makes the practice come alive for you. In this way, you use specific instances of suffering as a stepping stone for understanding the universal suffering of all sentient beings everywhere. What you feel for one person, you can extend to all people. This expansion evolves by doing the practice in a heartfelt way. This is why you start with the things that are close to your own heart. Recognizing that all people just like us wish to experience happiness and be free of suffering. This is the bottom line. We all belong to the same family of sentient beings.

Tonglen helps us realize our commonality with other sentient beings and additionally works at our egoic self-centeredness. It asks us to give time and energy in a heartfelt way to others sufferings and to take that suffering into our own heart.

The Power of Love and Compassion

Loving kindness and compassion are necessary not only for our own movement toward Enlightenment but is so needed in the world we live in today. The different religions and political systems were meant for human beings to achieve happiness, peace of mind and to live harmoniously with each other in community. Individuals of different faiths and nations can work together only when we view our commonality as human beings and show love and respect for each other.

For most of us living in today's technological and fast-paced world, we are so busy. Many spiritual practices take a lot of time and effort; heartfelt compassion is so simple and yet incredibly profound and real. We live in a sea of energy where all our thoughts, feelings and actions reverberate throughout the universe. So when we truly feel and radiate loving kindness, we are of great benefit to others. I have seen, both in the moment and over time, the power of love, compassion and well-intentioned thoughts. I encourage everyone to see the effects for both themselves and others the implications of living from a more compassionate place.

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