by Elizabeth J. Harris
Part 7 – Detachment and Compassion
A Christian missionary in Sri Lanka once said to me with great sincerity, “The Buddha image speaks to me of coldness, of non-involvement, of a turning away from life. I prefer the image of Jesus Christ with his robes dirty with the sweat of the poor.”
One stereotype of Buddhism is that it supports a withdrawal from the suffering of the world, a renunciation of active involvement with society. An inter-religious conference I attended a few years ago stays in my mind because one of the western participants insisted that outward-moving compassion was not an important part of Buddhism. My encounter with Buddhism forces me to challenge this stereotype. I did so at that conference and I continue to do so. It is outsiders — European observers and those seeking an escape from the world — who have projected onto Buddhism the encouragement of indifference to the agony within human life. It does not rise from within. Buddhism certainly speaks of destruction, renunciation, and detachment, but it is detachment from all those things which prevent compassion from flowing — from possessiveness, competitiveness, and selfishness. Viraga, one of the Pali words translated as detachment, actually means “without raga” — without lust, without possessive craving — not without concern for our world.
When I told a Buddhist monk here in Sri Lanka of my experience at that inter-religious conference, he simply said, “Without compassion, there can be no Buddhism.” And that compassion is an active one. Buddhaghosa, the great fifth century commentator who came from India to work in Sri Lanka, gives several meanings to the Buddhist concept of compassion. He writes: “When there is suffering in others it causes good people’s hearts to be moved, thus it is compassion. Or alternatively, it combats others’ suffering and demolishes it, thus it is compassion. Or alternatively, it is scattered upon those who suffer, or extended to them by pervasion, thus it is compassion” (The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), translated by Bhikkhu ¥anamoli, BPS 1975, IX, 92). To extend compassion to others in meditation is certainly part of Buddhist practice, but so too is the effort to combat and demolish suffering. To combat suffering involves more than refraining from doing harm. It implies action to liberate others both from social forces which dehumanize and from imprisoning thought patterns which hinder wholeness and the living of a religious life. Such action is seen in the life of the Buddha and in the lives of all truly enlightened ones.
For me, the picture of Jesus Christ with his clothes marked with the suffering of the poor and the image of the Buddha do not contradict one another. They are not in conflict or competition. Compassion unites them. Jesus stretched his hands out to the poor and those despised in his society, taking into himself the world’s evil. The Buddha, out of compassion for humans caught in the pain and suffering of existence, left his wife and son to seek a path of liberation for all.
In Polonnaruwa, one of the ancient, now ruined, capitals of Sri Lanka, there is a rock temple, the Gal Vihara, where three massive images are formed out of the stone. Two are of the Buddha. Peace seems to radiate from them and has done so for over 800 years. Yet it is not the peace of indifference or apathy. It is the peace of wisdom and compassion, which arises when the heart-rending nature of human violence and human greed is fully realized. It is not an anguished, twisted scream of torture at the nature of the world’s inhumanity, but a silent, gentle embodiment in stone of empathy, compassion, and strength. In front of these very images, Thomas Merton, an American Christian monk of this century whose religious journey brought him very close to Buddhism, was urged to write, “The rock, all matter, is charged with dharmakaya … everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.”
The Buddha image speaks to me, therefore, both of the wisdom which sees into the causes of human suffering and also of the compassion which lies at the very heart of true enlightenment. And it stirs me to try to do something to demolish some of the pain of our world.
Copyright 1994 Elizabeth J. Harris / enabling.org