A Journey Into Buddhism – Part 9 Compassion

by Elizabeth J. Harris

Part 9 – Compassion

Kataragama is a place of pilgrimage in the south of Sri Lanka, holy to both Buddhists and Hindus. In 1989, I went to their annual festival. On the final night, as elephants, drummers, and dancers were slowly and gracefully moving along the path between the shrine to Lord Kataragama and the Kiri Vehera, the Buddhist temple, with its milk-white dagoba, two powerful grenades were lobbed into the crowd, made up mainly of poor villagers but containing one political dignitary. About fifteen people were killed and many more were injured, especially in the rush to escape the sacred area. It was the time when the JVP, the People’s Liberation Front, was attempting to seize political power through the gun and the death threat.

At Kataragama, religious devotion was shattered by blood in a pattern not unfamiliar in Sri Lanka. Both Hindus and Muslims have also been attacked when worshipping. Political concerns and religion have touched. In this context, the inter-religious encounter that I began in 1986 as a student of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, also became a journey into suffering and painful political reality, which included the violent death of friends and sharing the fear of those who were threatened. An important question for me at this time was how to cope with the suffering around me without being destroyed, how to empathize with others and deal with my own fear for the safety of dear ones.

In any situation of violence or war, there is a choice to be made — to become vulnerable to the pain involved or to raise defences against it in a refusal to recognize its existence. Many raise defences because such a path seems easier. For to become vulnerable is to let go of control — the control we place on our feelings when we repress them or fight them. And such a loss can be frightening. I found myself choosing vulnerability in Sri Lanka. I chose to look violence in the face. I chose to see its horror and to recognize the fear and pain it brings rather than to push these things from my consciousness.

The experience would not have been bearable if not for an encounter with compassion. For it was when I became aware, in my whole being rather than only at the level of the intellect, that what I was feeling was the pain of a nation, a world, rather than simply my own pain, that I was able to cope with it. It was the realization of interconnectedness — that we are woven one with another — an insight central to Buddhism. I saw that there is a common core of suffering in life which links us together so that to become vulnerable is inevitably to become aware not only of one’s own pain but also of that of others. When I had reached this point of insight, compassion came like a gift and I learnt that it could destroy bitterness and paralysis. Behind pain lies compassion — compassion for all beings caught up in the violence of existence.

It was at this time that I wrote the following words, disturbed by the number of people who seemed undisturbed by the fact that Sri Lanka had become a killing field:

Our eyes no longer cloud in grief The sword no longer twists in our own heart Moans on the wind no longer weaken our limbs For we have grown accustomed, tamed Our vulnerability encased in self-erected stone. Do we need to relearn how to feel? How to chip away what we ourselves have built To sense again the rising of agony, the breaking of control As drops of blood become a river And tears merge with its bitter flow. Is this asking too much? That we should so open our bodies to pain To the shadowy part of our deeper selves Where the hurt and joy of a cosmos lie And compassion, like a fertile seed, awaits to grow?

I feel we must open ourselves up. We must recognize the suffering which lies at the heart of existence and then let compassion arise and strengthen us to struggle against all that dehumanizes.

Copyright 1994 Elizabeth J. Harris enabling.org

Previous, Buddhism and Social Justice

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