All Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, Venerable Master, Dharma Masters and fellow cultivators:
Today we celebrate Guanyin Bodhisattva's Leaving Home Day, and since Guanyin Bodhisattva is the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion, this is a very appropriate day to discuss the quality of compassion. So my topic today is compassion and the place it has in our lives. First of all, we could look at the meaning of the word "compassion" in English. Originally it comes from Latin, where the prefix com- means "with" or "together", and the word passion "suffering" or "feeling." Looking at this origin, we can say that compassion is "feeling together with others" or "suffering together with others when they undergo suffering," and this has profound meaning. It means that a compassionate person does not turn away from the suffering in the world, just as Guanyin Bodhisattva who listens to the sounds of the world does not close his ears to the sounds of suffering in the world. A person who wishes to practice compassion similarly feels together with all the troubles and suffering in the world. He doesn't turn away from these problems or ignore them.
In Buddhism, we know that we are all interconnected with other living beings. We know that there is this profound connection between all of us, as we are all of the same substance. If we truly understand this, we don't try to separate ourselves from the unpleasant incidents in this world or pretend that we can create our own little personal space and not be concerned with anybody else. Both our happiness and our suffering are intimately tied with the experiences of others. Some sages in the past felt this so strongly that they personally felt responsible for the suffering of all people. This is illustrated by the ancient Confucian saying, "If I see someone who goes hungry, I feel like I myself have deprived him of food." In this instance, the person is so closely connected with others that he feels he is personally at fault if other people suffer.
Compassion is one of the four unlimited minds of kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity (or giving). These four unlimited states of mind start with metta, with kindness and friendliness towards all living beings. When this feeling of kindness encounters good things happening to other people, it transforms itself into sympathetic joy, mudita. When good things happen to others, we feel joyful, we are happy for them. When this feeling of kindness encounters the suffering of others, it is transformed into compassion, karuna. This is the feeling we have when we see others suffering. And finally the fourth stage is equanimity, upekkha, which tempers and mediates these different mental states of compassion and sympathetic joy, and helps us to stay even-minded in the midst of both pleasure and suffering. If we think of these four states of mind, we see that compassion is already fundamentally there in our hearts. We all have a capacity for it.
The ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius saw the same thing when he said that all people fundamentally react to each other in a kind and compassionate way, they have this quality within themselves. The example Mencius used was that if any one of us saw a little infant crawling towards an open well, we would feel alarmed, and we would do our very best to save that child. For Mencius, this was an example of how people are all fundamentally kind and compassionate towards each other, or at least have this impulse, totally without thinking, totally spontaneously. If we saw a little child in danger, we certainly couldn't turn away and ignore the situation.
But the problem with most of us, our culture, and our society is that as we grow up, we often do the best we can to dull these compassionate and kind sensibilities. If we think of what kind of people are usually admired in our society, these are the tough ones, the ones who get to the top no matter what, the unfeeling ones, the winners who are willing to climb over any number of people to attain their own goals. The softer personalities, those who take the time to help others, who aren't out to win at any price, are usually seen as weaklings or losers, they aren't our heroes. So whether we look at pop culture or the business world, it seems like it's the hard, selfish people who are admired.
Yet originally we all have the same compassionate sensibilities. The question is how to retain them. There's a story I have heard concerning young children and their reactions when they see cartoons on TV for the first time. We know that most American cartoons are extremely violent—the cartoon creatures get squashed, blown to bits, pounded to pieces-all kinds of violent, mean, and nasty things happen to them. But when a child sees these kinds of events for the first time, his natural reaction is, "But he got hurt! That character just got hurt! Ouch, that must be very unpleasant." But then he looks around and sees the other, older children and they are all laughing when something like this is going on. What's the lesson that the child learns here? "Oh, people getting hurt is fun, it's amusing, it's entertainment! It's a joke, oke, I should laugh at this." So very quickly he learns his lesson and develops a taste for violent cartoons and violent entertainment—it's not real, so we should just be amused. This is just one example of how from a very young age we dull our original compassionate sensitivities. So the problem is, how do we manage to keep our compassion alive? There are many ways, of course; this is why Buddhadharma offers so many Dharma-Doors, like the recitation of the Buddhas' and Bodhisattvas' names to bring us back to our pure natures. And sometimes even very simple changes in our everyday life can have this effect.
I remember an acquaintance of mine back home in Finland who became a vegetarian. She wasn't a Buddhist but she decided to become a vegetarian anyway. Later she remarked that as soon as she had become a vegetarian, she couldn't stand to watch violent movies anymore. Without her even knowing it, this simple change in her diet had started to change her perceptions as well and she couldn't tolerate even watching any kind of violence or killing anymore. This is one example of how changes in lifestyle can change our worldview in general.
Last of all, I would like to tell the story of a contemporary artist and community activist whose life embodies a very great spirit of compassion and interconnectedness with other people. The name of this artist is Lily Yeh; she's a Chinese artist who lives and works in Philadelphia. I recently saw a video of her work, both in Philadelphia and in Kenya, Africa and I was very touched by what I saw. She lives in North Philadelphia which is a very poor, dangerous area of Philadelphia, full of all kinds of social problems and urban decay. And Lily Yeh said that when you first look at North Philadelphia, it looks like a very dark and depressing place. But then she recalled an old Daoist saying which goes that wherever things seem most dark, right there is also most potential, most possibility for change. And with that kind of an attitude she started to found the Village of Arts and Humanities right in the middle of North Philadelphia.
She started with painting some huge murals, painting the walls of some of the tenement houses with enormous guardian angels. When she looked around the streets of North Philadelphia, she thought that the children and residents of North Philadelphia needed protection most of all, and she thought these guardian angels would be a good start. So she started painting them and gradually the people in the neighborhood started joining in. Children would come and she would teach them various techniques and get them involved in the ongoing art projects and the adults would come along as well. And in over a period of ten or so years, the Village of Arts and Humanities has become a huge community project. There are all kinds of art projects going on, mosaics, frescoes, ceramics, music, dance, theater. The Village has involved people in the whole neighborhood and transformed a poor, crime-ridden ghetto into something livable and more wholesome. The Village transmits artistic and spiritual values to the children who then don't have to turn to gangs or drugs or crime, because now they have some meaningful content in their lives.
But the most touching part of what Lily Yeh said in this video came at the end, when she mentioned why she got involved in all of this in the first place. She said, "A lot of people come to me and say, 'Oh, you're such a nice, kind person to be so involved with the community and help the people in this way.'' And she said, "No, that's not it, really. That's not why I started doing this. I'm actually doing this for far more selfish reasons." And what were those selfish reasons? She said, "If I hadn't done what I did, I would have died inside." To me, those simple words were tremendously powerful. "If I hadn't done what I did, I would have died inside." There's a profound understanding here of a person's spiritual nature, of the interconnectedness between us all. She understood that if she ignored the problems around her, the urban decay that she saw every day, if she would have just tried to live her own life and closed her eyes to other people's suffering, she would have been the one who would have been damaged. Her compassion would have been diminished; her spiritual nature would have suffered. So she didn't have any choice. If she wanted to stay alive, to stay a real human being, she had to start helping, she had to get involved.
Her words prove that when we respond to other people's problems, when we allow our compassionate nature to expand, instead of diminishing it and hiding it away, the ones who benefit are not just the other people, the recipients. We are the ones who really benefit from our own compassionate actions. The benefit goes both ways. The recipient obviously benefits, but it's possible that the giver, the doer benefits even more. This benefit is often invisible, nothing you could point at. You're not likely to make more money, you don't necessarily get famous, and your life probably isn't going to be easy. Lily Yeh certainly has encountered many disappointments and frustrations, but she sees them as simply a part of her work. To me, she's a true exemplar of the Bodhisattva Path, of a spiritual vision of life and art and a willingness to share that with other people the world over.
So finally, I would just like to urge all of us to remember what a vital spark compassion is in our lives. During this week and even after this session we could all try—in our own lives, in our own neighborhoods, in whatever we do—to discover ways of keeping this compassion alive and allowing it to expand, sharing it with everybody. As the Venerable Master so often and so well said, "Being one substance with all is called Great Compassion." Amitabha.